TACIR Releases Report on Fire Service Funding

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 | 7:23am

Nashville, TN–Despite some improvement, Tennessee remains among the ten jurisdictions with the highest fire death rates nationwide, underscoring the importance of better understanding fire service in the state.  Which is why the General Assembly asked the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to study how fire service is funded, in rural and suburban areas, whether provided by paid or volunteer fire departments, and to determine the effect on local governments of not having a fully funded fire department and what it would mean for firefighting to be made an essential service.

Different types of fire departments have access to different types of funding based mainly on whether they are city, county, or private corporations.  Most fire service is funded through taxes or through fees.  While tax revenue is typically general fund revenue, counties may also establish fire tax districts in which some portion of the property tax is earmarked for fire service.  The Commission found no obvious reason not to extend the option of allowing fire tax districts to cities.

While there is no definition for “fully funded” or “essential service” in state law, conversations with the bill’s sponsor and fire officials support interpretation of a fully funded, essential service as a publicly funded, mandatory service.  There are very few mandated services in Tennessee or any other state.  In fact, the only mandatory service in Tennessee with a definition of fully funded is public education.  And while many sources assert that there is a relationship between funding levels and fire losses, the data available for Tennessee’s fire departments does not indicate a strong relationship.  The data, which is self-reported, is inconsistent and has many gaps for individual fire departments.  The quality of data for fire departments and for fire incidents is a concern in itself, one that has already been identified by the State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO).

The report discusses a 2011 University of Tennessee (UT) study of fire deaths by Census tract that found that 90% of the Census tracts in Tennessee at highest risk for fire deaths are rural tracts characterized by high poverty; low education levels, incomes, and housing values; and a large number of mobile homes.  The SFMO has already begun to target those high-risk areas in an attempt to reduce fire deaths, focusing largely on methods other than fire suppression—like distributing smoke detectors and supporting public fire-safety education—and on better data collection to help identify future strategies.

The full report is available on TACIR’s web site at www.tn.gov/tacir/pubs_by_date.html.  For more information, contact Catherine Corley by email or phone 615-253-4240.

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) serves as a forum for the discussion and resolution of intergovernmental problems; provide high quality research support to state and local government officials in order to improve the overall quality of government in Tennessee; and to improve the effectiveness of the intergovernmental system in order to better serve the citizens of Tennessee.

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Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations