At eight o’clock on a Monday night at the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department, a five-ton brush truck goes up a hill in the grassy, muddy terrain behind the station.
Chief Sean Dixon is teaching about a dozen volunteer firefighters how to drive this thirty year-old truck.
“If you feel like you’re going to go at it at too steep of an angle, back off the accelerator, get a better grip on it,” Dixon says.
Unlike those standard red fire engines, this vehicle can handle region’s tough, sandy terrain in order to reach wildfires. And Dixon says that’s important because wildland fires make up 80 percent of their call load.
He says the department actually has three of these heavy brush trucks, but one needs a new engine.
And Dixon says the third truck—a recent donation from a local company—requires the installation of pricey equipment like a $4,000 water pump to be fire-ready.
“What it’s going to cost to put it together and built and stuff like that, we’re looking at 10 or 20,000 dollars,” he says.
The West Odessa Fire Department has many used trucks and equipment with chipped paint and the occasional piece of duct tape. Mechanically-inclined firefighters do routine maintenance and repairs.
That’s because Dixon says the department operates on a yearly budget of only around $40,000—which mostly comes from Ector County. And everything in the fire industry is pricey.
“It’s like having a second wife. There ain’t nothing cheap about it,” says Dixon.
Funding for volunteer departments is scarce. Most get limited—if any—funding from local governments. The state’s grant program for rural volunteer departments currently has requests for $200 million worth of equipment from 950 departments, but it only has $17 million a year to spend.
That leaves many departments relying on bake sales, gun raffles, and even knocking on doors to raise money.
“We’ve heard numerous stories where firefighters will take out money from their own personal billfold and wallet and put fuel in the truck,” State Firefighters and Fire Marshals Association of Texas President Chris Barron says.