First responders in Altus are looking down the road for an additional county tax. Though there’s no confirmation of a quarter-cent sales tax on the county ballot for rural fire departments, the purpose of the tax would be to help fund training opportunities and upkeep costs for the departments, nine in Jackson County, including bigger fire departments such as Altus, Friendship and Blair.
And first responders are hoping to give voters the option to approve such a tax.
Local Emergency Management Committee Chairman Erik Mowbray said the tax would cost taxpayers an estimated $36 annually but put another estimated $69,000 a year in the hands of rural fire departments, funding for which there’s a dire need.
Rural fire departments are funded by membership dues and grants when they can be had. In his tenure as Jackson County Emergency Manager, Wayne Cain raised an estimated $700,000 for rural fire departments in Jackson County. Erik Mowbray now holds that title.
Part of that funding included $5,000 to Altus Fire and Rescue for swift water rescue training and countless other training opportunities during the last several years.
While Altus, Friendship and Blair are larger departments with larger jurisdictions and more funding opportunities, departments in Headrick, Eldorado, Duke, Olustee and Martha have fewer members and less funding to contribute to upkeep and training costs. Cain said a tax such as this one would help those smaller departments.
Funding for rural departments is vital because it helps keep the equipment working. And without working equipment, response to a fire can be delayed, he said.
In Eldorado, their two firetrucks are 31 and 40 years old, respectively. When they break down, they’re repaired to live another day, but nothing lasts forever.
Many volunteer firefighters wear many hats. Whether they’re parents or employed as mechanics, office workers or farmers, their experiences outside of the fire station serve their communities.
Though they’re trained to perform fire suppression and emergency services as first responders within their jurisdiction, volunteer firefighters aren’t paid for the time they spend fighting fires or the time spent repairing equipment.
“Many of these volunteers get a call at work, and they clock out,” Phil Beauchamp said. “Then they stay until we tell them they can’t fight a fire for 10, 12, 15 straight hours, go home, and come back six hours later ready to go at it again.”
It’s all part of their commitment to their home communities as well as the surrounding communities. Jackson County’s rural fire departments are also part of the Jackson County Wildland Task Force.
“Just because they’re Blair Fire doesn’t mean they only fight fires in Blair,” Beauchamp said. “If there’s a fire anywhere in Jackson County, they all respond, even going to fires in Tillman County if needed.”
Jackson County’s rural departments responded to the wildland fire in May at the Salt Fork of the Red River west of Altus, two fires in Mangum, one in Hollis and another wildlife fire, according to Cain. Their relationship with Altus Air Force Base and skilled response have earned the task force a reputation throughout the state and provide them training opportunities that would not have otherwise been financially possible.
Though Mowbray said no one wants more taxes, they hope a sales tax benefiting rural departments will pass not only to help fund training and better-quality equipment but to lower the county’s Insurance Service Office, or ISO, rating and insurance rates, that would ultimately offset the cost of the tax.
In the meantime, membership dues and grants will continue to fund rural fire departments to the best of their ability.