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State grant helping Jackson fire departments upgrade needed tools and resources

By Kristin Fox

The Volunteer Fire Department Fund, administered through the NC Department of Insurance, provides up to $30,000 in matching grants for volunteer fire departments to purchase equipment and make capital improvements. Three Jackson County volunteer fire departments, Balsam-Willets-Ochre Hill, Qualla and Canada Volunteer Fire Departments, have applied for this grant opportunity to purchase much-needed equipment to help improve fire services for Jackson County residents. 

Last month, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to provide the local 50 percent required match for the grant. The match will be appropriated in the upcoming Jackson County 2023-2024 fiscal year budget.

The fire grant program is available to only volunteer fire departments that meet certain state guidelines and is a great way for small rural department to fund capital needs, purchase personal protective equipment and other items that carry huge price tags. The NC Department of Insurance requires that the equipment purchased with the fund be maintained at the fire station for which the grant is awarded and be used in helping provide fire protection to the district the department serves.

Balsam-Willets-Ochre Hill Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. submitted an application for the fire grant in the amount of $59,600 to upgrade emergency radio communication equipment. The department requested $29,800 from Jackson County for the required local match for the grant application. 

The current UHF radio network being utilized by the Balsam Fire Department is approaching the end of its useful life. Most of the radios being used today exceed 10 years in age, show signs of wear, are no longer in production by the manufacturer, and lack the most current technology options. In addition, not all the radios are the same model which creates problems when trying to swap out batteries or exchange radios with other personnel that do not have the same model. 

The Balsam Fire Department only has one Viper 800 MHz radio. Viper radios are the primary form of communication used during declared states of emergency. The department will also be using some of the grant funding to add some additional Viper radios to the department.

Currently, none of the fire department radios meet the new federal Project 25 (P25) standards. P25 develops standards for interoperable land mobile radios (LMR) systems so emergency responders can exchange critical communications across agencies and jurisdictions. P25 standardizes interfaces between the various components of the LMR systems emergency responders use.

“Communication is a vital part of providing an adequate emergency response and is essential in working to achieve responder safety,” stated Balsam Fire Chief Brian Thomas McMahan. “Not only will these new radios be in better working condition, they come outfitted with GPS locator technology, the P25 emergency standards, and more user friendly features. Standardization of equipment will also be a big advantage. These new units are much needed and will make a big difference in our department.”

The Qualla Volunteer Fire Department plans to purchase six new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) through the volunteer grant fund. The total for these packs will be $67,268.76 with the state and county each providing $30,000 of the cost. Since the total for these six SBCA exceeds the $30,000 limit from the state, the local department will pay the extra $7,268.76 needed to purchase the SCBAs. 

In addition, the department would also like to purchase two more SCBAs from their budget at an additional cost of $22,422.92. This brings the total expense for Qualla Fire Department to $59,691.68 will the county covering the required match reducing the total paid by Qualla to $29,691.68 allowing the department to obtain a total of 8 air packs, six through the grant and two out of the department budget.

“Buying 8 total SCBA with new masks bottles and one spare bottle each will allow us to outfit two engines with brand new air packs,” said Qualla Fire Captain Trevor Sutton. “Our current SCBA are National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 2007 standard with the most recent standards for SCBA are 2018. That puts us at two standards behind.”

“We also have approximately 32 air bottles of our SCBA that will be out of service life in 2025. The bottles and spare bottles that come with these new SCBA will replace 16 of those and each new bottle will have a 15-year service life.”

The Canada Fire Department & Rescue applied for grant funding to help purchase 13 sets of turnout gear and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at a cost of $4,690.60 per set. The total cost for 13 sets is $60,977 with $30,00 applied for in the grant application and the additional $30,000 matched by the county. The department will pay the remaining balance of $977.

To be eligible for the grant funding, fire departments must be all volunteer, with the exception of six paid positions. To apply for the grant opportunity, fire departments must report to the National Fire Incident Reporting System and also be recognized as rated/certified by the NC Department of Insurance.

Grant award notifications will occur in May and departments that receive the grant will be able to move forward with purchases. 

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