July 1, 2004
COST OF OPERATING A PAID V. VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT
By: Veronica Rose, Principal Analyst
You asked if there are any studies comparing the cost of operating a volunteer with a paid fire department.
We contacted various local and national fire organizations and researched fire department literature for the last 10 years but did not locate any definitive published reports comparing the costs of operating paid and volunteer fire departments. The literature and anecdotal evidence indicate that it costs more to operate paid than volunteer fire departments.
Cost comparisons are complicated by several factors affecting departments. These include the demographics and size of the service area, population size and density, type of services expected (e.g., fire only or both fire and emergency medical services (EMS)), number of calls and responses, age and type of building stock, construction level, department proximity to highways, wage and compensation rates, and whether the department is the main service provider or merely provides support or supplemental services to another department.
The cost to operate a volunteer fire department is further complicated by the range of volunteer programs that abound. For example, some departments classified as volunteer more closely resemble combination departments because of the number of paid staff they employ. Some volunteer departments are independent entities that own their firehouses and fire equipment and get minimal subsidy from the town; others are heavily subsidized by the town. In Wethersfield, for example, the town owns the firehouse and fire equipment and pays for all of the department's operating costs. Danbury provides different levels of support for its volunteer companies, depending on whether the town or the volunteers own the firehouses and fire equipment. Stamford's five volunteer departments are functionally independent but receive some city funding.
The literature suggests that the major savings that come from operating a volunteer fire department are from personnel expenses, including wages and compensation benefits. Volunteer departments do not pay wages to the volunteers (although anecdotal evidence suggests that some may offer a small stipend), and the benefits some of these departments provide to attract volunteers generally appear to cost less than what towns provide to paid firefighters. This translates into savings for towns that would have to levy taxes to cover these costs.
We understand that Guilford and Mansfield have studied the costs and benefits of operating paid and volunteer fire departments. Mansfield apparently produced four reports between 2000 and 2002. The last, conducted by the University of Connecticut, received the most widespread support. The feedback on the other three was negative. We will send you copies of all these reports when we get them.
Below is a brief description of three different types of fire departments in towns of comparable population size.
East Haven, with a population of approximately 29,000, based on the 2000 census, operates a combination fire department. The department has 45 active volunteers, 40 career firefighters, and 13 other employees (shift commanders, dispatchers, and administrative staff). Volunteers are not paid a salary, but the town provides all their equipment and training. In addition, eligible volunteers get $25,000 life insurance coverage and a property tax abatement of up to $1,000. The department provides both fire and EMS services. Its budget for the current year is $4 million, according to the fire chief, Wayne Sandford.
Naugatuck, with a population of approximately 31,000, based on the 2000 census, operates a paid fire department. It has 41 full-time paid employees and five volunteers. Volunteers do not have their own fire station and are used to supplement the career firefighters. They receive no benefits, such as insurance and property tax benefits provided to the East Haven volunteers above. The department responds to approximately 1,800 fire and rescue calls per year. It does not provide EMS services. Its budget for the current year is $2.9 million.
Wethersfield, with a population of 26,300, based on the 2000 census, operates a volunteer fire department with 105 firefighters. Volunteers are not paid a salary or stipend but are eligible for an annual property tax exemption of up to $1,000 and a service award of up to $500 per year if they meet certain criteria. In fiscal year 2002-03, the department responded to approximately 450 fire service calls. The department does not normally provide EMS services. The town owns the firehouses and fire equipment and pays all of the department's expenses. According to the fire chief, William Clark, the department's budget for the last fiscal year was $530,000. For this fiscal year, it is $300,000.