Rural fire department replaces decade-old protective gear and needs more

When Tallassee’s volunteer firefighters were called in an emergency, they would rush to get dressed – jumping into the protective gear they had donned many times before. Most of the uniforms had rips and tears, worn from hundreds of fires over the past 15 years.

The department’s most recent equipment was manufactured in 2007, although the National Fire Protection Association recommends replacing personal protective equipment every 10 years or less.

Meanwhile, firefighting equipment manufacturers claim their equipment lasts an average of three to seven years.

However, like many other rural fire departments across the country, Tallassee simply did not have the money to keep all of its uniforms up to date.

This month, they got a little help.

The Tallassee Fire Department in Tallassee, Alabama on Friday, August 26, 2022.

Tallassee was able to purchase 10 new sets of PPE with a $23,570 grant from the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. Not only is the gear tear-free, but it also features updated technology that is lighter and more protective for firefighters.

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“Without this grant, we would not have been able to purchase all 10 sets of equipment,” Deputy Fire Chief David Rogers said. “To most people, $23,000 doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but you have departments selling barbecues, frying fish, doing car washes to support themselves.”

Rogers said there was no way the department would be able to raise enough funds for this new equipment. Even with the Firehouse Subs grant, about 22 volunteers will still have to don the old PPE if called in an emergency.

“If we wanted to replace all of our department’s response equipment, we would have over $100,000,” Rogers said. “But, you know, the general public and citizens expect nothing less from you, no matter what your equipment looks like or what condition it is in. They always expect an adequate response.”

The volunteers who make up Tallassee Fire have learned to expect the worst when responding to emergencies, which makes most situations more manageable once they arrive on the scene.

Capt. Mike Allard compares new fire vests with old ones from the Tallassee Fire Department in Tallassee, Alabama, Friday, Aug. 26, 2022.

For captain Mike Allard, burns are another given. Even while wearing his protective gear, Allard said he left behind steam burn situations. They can occur when water is sprayed on the flames and splashes, soaking their uniforms.

“You expect to get burned if you’re near that,” Allard said. “It’s hot and there’s nothing you can do.”

Tallassee Fire serves a population of approximately 8,500 people in 44 square miles in Elmore, Tallapoosa, and Macon counties. Currently, the average time it takes to receive a call and get to the scene is six to seven minutes, which Rogers says is about twice as long as the response time in areas urban like Montgomery.

“In an emergency, it feels like forever,” Rogers said.

Ideally, he said, the department would have 15 to 20 more volunteers, but they make it work.

The department responds between 350 and 375 calls a year, and that’s a growing number since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the shortage of ambulances and paramedics intensified across the country, particularly affecting rural areas, Tallassee Fire also began responding to emergency medical situations.

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Often the EMS calls they receive are the ones the local private paramedics ask for help because they are too busy.

The Tallassee Fire Department in Tallassee, Alabama on Friday, August 26, 2022.

“Most of your urban areas are able to put people there, where rural areas can use tactics and neighbors to make it work,” Rogers said. “It’s really neighbors helping neighbors.”

Extending outside of Tallassee’s city lines, there are dozens of other volunteer fire departments in surrounding areas that Tallassee Fire partners with for larger emergencies. Because many of them struggle with the same twin issues of labor and money, Rogers said partnering across departments is how they make sure every community has a adequate rescue support.

“Your fellow Alabama State Firefighters will do just about anything for their neighboring departments,” he said. “You’ve heard the term, ‘It takes a village.’ The fire department is really like that now in Alabama.

Tallassee Fire has an alarm structure in place where, if the situation is serious enough, the service can call a dispatch number for immediate assistance.

Rogers said there was always an answer.

Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be contacted at [email protected] To support his work, subscribe to the announcer or donate to Report for America.

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