WASHINGTON -- In Texas, firefighters aren't just battling the wild fires raging around Austin and Houston. The state's first responders have also had to deal with budget cuts affecting everything from fuel purchases to hoses and air tanks.
In some cases, fire officials say, firefighters have had to pay out of pocket for basic necessities like proper protective gear and fuel to get them to the scene. One fire department that battled the blazes in Bastrop County had to pay for a hose, recalled Bastrop City Fire Chief Henry Perry, speaking to The Huffington Post during a break from working the wild fires.
"That fire department has been on this fire every day," he said. "Before this fire, they were having to buy stuff out of their own pocket." Perry said he knows of at least one other department whose firemen had to pay for equipment maintenance and engine fuel.
Earlier this week, HuffPost reported that Gov. Rick Perry, the GOP front-runner for president, had signed off on millions in firefighting cuts as part of the state's most recent budget legislation. The Texas Forest Service's funding has gone from $117.7 million in the 2010-2011 budget years to $83 million in the 2012-2013 budget years.
Severe cuts have also hit assistance grants to volunteer fire departments throughout Texas. The grants decreased from $30 million per year in 2010 and 2011 to $13.5 million per year in 2012 and 2013. These are cuts that firemen are now dealing with.
"I don't agree with it. I understand what Governor Perry did," said Henry Perry (no relation). "Do I like it? No. I don't like it at all."
The cuts come at a time when Texas fire departments have already been slowing purchases of new fire trucks and other critical equipment as a way to save money, said Guy Turner, president of the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters. The association had endorsed Perry in his re-election for governor in 2010.
"What I fear will happen is equipment will start to fail and put our members at peril," Turner explained. "You can imagine if you're inside a structure fire and your engine quits."
Turner doesn't have to imagine it. He said he knows of firefighters whose breathing apparatus has malfunctioned during fires. There have also been "instances of hoses failing during the course of firefighting operations."
"For years, public safety was the golden calf -- that we were untouchable," Turner said. "Nobody's untouchable. It is a shame. They are basically putting a price on how much our lives are worth. It's disturbing at best."
Firefighters also have been hit with millions in cuts from a state matching grant program that helps local departments pay for essentials like proper clothing and engine upkeep. The departments already had difficulty matching the state grants. "These are the folks out there having to have fundraisers -- fish fries and pancake suppers and barbecues to raise money," Henry Perry said.
Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas, told HuffPost that one department in Bastrop County has had to beg for proper clothing to use in combating wild fires. Other firefighters have paid out of pocket for that gear. They can't wear their normal gear when battling these fires. "The last thing we want to do is wear something heavy and nonbreathable," he said.
Barron said his organization had started a wildfire relief fund in March with the goal of raising $500,000 for new gear. It has received $200,000 in private donations so far.
The budget cuts haven't just hit local departments in need of proper gear. They've hit the state agency charged with inspecting that gear. The Texas Commission on Fire Protection, which regulates and inspects the personal protective gear such as breathing apparatuses and protective clothing, took a 25 percent cut. The commission has gone from 41 to 31 employees. It's down to six inspectors covering 700 departments, including Houston's 4,000 firefighters.
"We lost personnel and we lost funding," said Jake Soteriou, the commission's executive director. He said he had not heard of the breathing gear malfunctions.
Will the budget cuts slow down the commission's inspections? "We're going to find out," said Soteriou.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that firefighters were paying for "oxygen tanks," which is inaccurate. Firefighters carry air tanks, rather than compressed oxygen, to breathe in smoke-filled environments.
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