Among volunteer fire departments, spring is a prime season for fundraising. But not in 2020. Concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus have ruled out the possibility of large public gatherings.
A consequence of the coronavirus shutdown is cancellation of hundreds of volunteer fire department fundraisers across the United States – from fish fries to bingo to hog roasts to chicken barbecues. No more carnivals or spaghetti suppers or gun raffles. And departments are losing thousands of dollars.
The resulting financial burden is a momentous and imminent threat to the operation of volunteer fire departments, some of which do not receive any government funding. With two months or more of fundraising lost forever, the economic stability of volunteer fire departments is called into doubt.
Underlying the problem is another sobering reality: Fires don’t stop just because of coronavirus. However, overall calls are down for some departments, which provides some level of relief.
Virtual And Online Fundraising
Hope springs eternal that some variation of fundraising can resume if things get back to “normal” in June or later this summer. If not, in a worst-case scenario if stay-at-home orders remain in place for several more months, some volunteer departments could be forced to shut down. Raising money may not get any easier for months to come.
Underlying the problem is a sobering reality: Fires don’t stop just because of coronavirus
Some departments have experimented with virtual and online fundraisers, with mixed results, although the efforts are unlikely to replace the lost revenue from events canceled because of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Examples include Facebook Live raffles and various types of electronic donation collections.
Some volunteer departments operate social halls and rent them out for a variety of public events. With those events cancelled, too, another possible source of revenue is eliminated, at least for the near term.
Volunteer Fire Department Costs
Some departments have experimented with virtual and online fundraisers, with mixed results
Department costs are unrelenting – and varied. They have to pay basic utilities such as electricity, heat and internet, as well as buy fuel for their trucks. Some have loan payments on fire trucks and other equipment, and various maintenance costs, not to mention insurance on equipment and supplemental insurance for firefighters.
Just as many households are reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic, many fire departments also find themselves suddenly thrust into uncertain times facing a downwardly spiraling budget and little way to make up the deficit. Rather than living paycheck-to-paycheck, they are accustomed to working fundraiser-to-fundraiser. In general, donations dwindle in a down economy.
Some departments are having to slash up to half their spending, addressing the dilemma with a brutal reevaluation of their department’s finances. They are separating “needs” that can’t be ignored from “wants” that can be delayed or eliminated. For example, purchase of replacement equipment may need to be delayed for a period of time.
Navigating Uncharted Waters
Volunteer fire departments were already facing challenges such as recruitment and retention declines, and a dearth of funds aggravates the existing challenges.
State and municipal governments provide funding to volunteer fire departments in some locales, but can those funds be counted on as governments face their own shortfalls? Tax support and municipal funds may not be a sure thing in the era of COVID-19. The fact is, we are all in uncharted territory.