The new year got off to a good start for the Halstead Fire/EMS Department, as it learned it would be one of 70 departments across Kansas to receive grant funding through the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
Funds through the Kansas Firefighter Recruitment and Safety Grant Program were awarded to various volunteer/part-time fire departments (Halstead has 30 volunteer firefighters on its roster) across the state — with the fire marshal's office nearly doubling the number of departments receiving funds this year, as well as the funding itself (up from $200,000 to $400,000).
"To qualify, you have to be either a combination or volunteer department in the state of Kansas, you have to be up to date on your fire reporting ... then there's an application process where you fill out an application then get some bids," said Halstead Fire Chief Jim VanSchaick. "You apply for equipment that you might not be able to get."
Namely, the program earmarks grant funds to be used for the purchase of safety gear, washer/extractor machines for cleaning bunker gear, start up of Junior Firefighter programs, etc. For Halstead, receiving the grant means the department will be able to purchase three new sets of turnout gear (the coats and pants firefighters equip during structure fires).
With this grant assistance covering the cost of that turnout gear, that opens up the opportunity for Halstead Fire/EMS to target other high priority purchases with its own funds.
"It just helps with budgeting and it helps us buy other equipment that we wouldn't normally be able to buy," VanSchaick said of the grant. "We've gotten our fair share of grants and awards over the years. It's really paid dividends because we could turn funds around that we would be using for some of the equipment that we have got and it would allow us to buy other equipment that we wouldn't normally be able to get."
On top of the newly awarded grant funds, VanSchaick said the department also just used the funds it received over the summer through the Kansas Forest Service to purchase 20 sets of new wild land gear (lighter gear used for fighting wildfires) including googles, helmets, etc.
Volunteer and part-time fire departments face recruitment and retention challenges because they do not have the funding to provide safety equipment. Without new equipment provided by the recruiting fire department, potential volunteers are faced with not only donating their time but also providing their own safety gear, sharing gear with others or doing without. There is also a proven increase in cancer diagnoses for firefighters, which can be caused by prolonged exposure to carcinogens, particulates and biohazards. The proper gear, regular cleaning of that gear and equipment, along with preventative health care is crucial for a firefighter’s health and well-being.
Grant assistance is not new to the Halstead Fire/EMS department, VanSchaick noted, but the most recent grant received was the first of its kind in a few years — though VanSchaick pointed out that often depends on what is allocated by the State Legislature each session.
Given the high volume of requests ($1.3 million from 79 departments) received through the grant program this year, the fire marshal's office has already stated it will continue to seek allocations from the Legislature to keep the program going.
“We’ve seen, by the sheer number of requests for this funding, the need is high among our volunteer and part-time fire departments,” said Doug Jorgensen, State Fire Marshal. “It is simply unacceptable to ask Kansans, not only to volunteer their time as first responders in smaller communities, but to also sacrifice their safety by not giving them the tools they need to protect and serve their communities as volunteer firefighters. This grant allows us to assist in providing some of the funds needed to provide safety equipment the departments otherwise could not afford.”
Funds awarded to Halstead Fire/EMS through this year's grant program totaled $5,390.94.