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Proposed legislation would make it easier for volunteer fire departments to buy sports drinks like Gatorade and other supplies chiefs say are essential to battling blazes in Alabama summers.

Volunteer fire departments, of which there are dozens around the state, operate on restricted and unrestricted funds. Restricted funds include those from state grants, tax revenue or county appropriations. According to guidance from the Alabama Examiner of Public Accounts, restricted funds expenditures can include the purchase of fire trucks and stations, fire-fighting and communication equipment, training and insurance. But restricted funds can't be spent on food or drink, appliances in a firehouse kitchen or salaries. Instead, those things have to be purchased with private money, including donations are fundraiser revenues.

Randolph County Fire Association President JJ Wendling is in full support of the proposed bill.

"House Bill 25 seeks to allow volunteer fire departments and rescue squads to use 'restricted' funds to purchase water and electrolyte replenishment drinks, kitchen equipment and provide reimbursement for mileage when volunteers use their own personal vehicles when responding to calls," Wendling said. Wendling went on to say, specifically, the bill states in Section 3:

(a) A volunteer fire department may use funds that are designated by the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts as restricted for purposes of accounting with the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts for the following purposes:

(1) The purchase of kitchen equipment for the fire station of the department, including refrigeration equipment, cooking equipment, microwaves and other kitchen equipment. All kitchen equipment shall be the property of the volunteer fire department.

(2) The purchase of electrolyte replacement or sports drinks, water and similar liquid sustenance in any form for use by volunteer firefighters on a fire call or at or during training exercises in the line of duty. The Legislature specifically finds that the expenditure of these funds are for a public purpose in providing for the health and safety of volunteer fire fighters.

Any funds expended by a volunteer fire department pursuant to this section shall be accounted for by the volunteer fire department.

Section 4 of the bill states a volunteer fire department may provide mileage reimbursement to a volunteer fire fighter up to the standard mileage rate of a state employee for actual mileage for the use of his or her personal motor vehicle to travel from his or her home or place of employment to a fire call and for return to his or her home or place of employment. The mileage reimbursement claim shall be submitted by a signed statement of the volunteer fire fighter and shall be approved by the fire chief or assistant fire chief as verification that the volunteer fire fighter was present and performing duties at a fire call. The payment of mileage reimbursement by a volunteer fire department shall be authorized by a recorded vote of the board of the volunteer fire department at a regular meeting of the board.

Wendling said there are numerous hazards associated with the fire service. "Of all the hazards faced by firefighters, dehydration is one of the most common, and it can be life-threatening. The heat associated with the fire, extreme physical exertion and heavy personal protective equipment, all add to elevating your internal body temperature and increases sweat rate. Since sweat is the body's cooling mechanism, sweating profusely can quickly deplete the body's water reserves. And in extreme conditions, firefighters can lose water up to five times faster than a professional athlete."

He said performance is greatly compromised when someone is dehydrated, even in cases of mild dehydration. Studies have shown dehydration contributes to a drop in alertness, concentration and fatigue.

Cardiac stress is a major problem, no matter what the age or sex of the firefighter. "Dehydration and resulting heat exhaustion are contributing factors to sudden cardiac arrest, which accounts for 45 percent of all firefighting fatalities ... The number one cause of on-duty deaths in the fire service. This happens because when the body's fluid reserves are depleted, the heart beats faster to try and cool itself, and therefore, the increased risk."

Wendling said in summary the Randolph Fire Association is in the opinion that:

"With the advanced age of our volunteers in Randolph County, cardiac issues are even more of a concern. This is personal; just last year, we had a line of duty death of a firefighter who died from a suspected heart attack after responding to a house fire.

"Providing water and electrolyte replacement drinks during emergency calls and training is what I would consider essential to our ability to operate and perform our fire service mission of saving lives, protecting property and the environment. We cannot purchase water/electrolyte replacement drinks for our volunteers using 'restricted' funds and this means we rely on chartable donations or fund raisers (fill the boot, fish frys, etc.) to get the funds necessary to purchase what we consider these mission critical supplies. This adds to the frustration of doing our best to train and equip our firefighters with the tools they need to perform their duties. This needs to change.

"Additionally, recruiting is another area where we are significantly challenged in Randolph County. Mileage reimbursement would not only benefit our firefighters, but it would also help in our efforts to recruit members. As 100 percent of our fire departments are comprised of volunteers, they typically absorb the cost of travel to and from their department or the fire scene at their own expense. As volunteers we understand this and have chalked this up to just being part of the selfless service we provide to the community. As volunteers we get called at all hours and in all conditions to help our neighbors during some of their worst days. We ask our volunteers to not only sacrifice their time and put their own lives in danger, but we also ask them to pay for their own gas when responding to calls. Providing a way to offset this cost so there is not so much out-of-pocket expenses for our volunteers is the right thing to do and will also help in our ability to recruit members for the future."

Wendling closed by encouraging not only firefighters and rescuers, but all citizens to contact your state legislators and express your support of HB25.

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