WASHINGTON — Now that diesel prices have jumped well beyond $4 a gallon, the volunteer rescuers who protect most of the United States have begun rethinking how they respond to emergencies.
In state after state, fire chiefs are leaving fuel-guzzling pumpers and ladder trucks back at the station. They're cutting out-of-town training for firefighters. They're dipping into equipment budgets to save money and clustering errands to save mileage.
In one Pennsylvania department, firefighters even skip community parades because they can't afford to drive the routes.
"We made the decision earlier this year," said Ed Mann, who volunteers as the assistant chief in Mifflin County, Pa., where he's also the state fire commissioner.
"The costs of fuel right now, it's like a trickle-down effect everywhere," Mann said.
The problems are the same across the country, where more than two-thirds of the geography is protected by an estimated 800,000 volunteers. Most of them work in rural areas, where they must drive long distances to emergencies and often rely on donations from spaghetti dinners and bingo nights.
"A lot of these (departments) are already struggling financially," said David Finger, the vice president for government affairs for the National Volunteer Fire Council in Washington. "This is just heaped on top of it."
Urban departments often are run by career firefighters and funded by city governments.
But in most of the United States, volunteers are the ones who throw on heavy suits and hop onto trucks to respond to emergencies ranging from forest fires to car wrecks to medical calls.
Even their smallest vehicles — pickups or SUVs — get less than 20 miles to the gallon. Ladder trucks get much less.
"Some of these big trucks, they only get three or four miles to the gallon," said Kenn Fontenot, the assistant chief of the LeBlanc Volunteer Fire Department in south-central Louisiana and a state director for the National Volunteer Fire Council.
"They cost $600 to $700 to fill up," he said. "That's some money right there."
Fontenot's station doesn't send its big rig on calls anymore. No pumper either. Instead, it sends out the smaller service truck.
In Walkertown, N.C., Chief Wesley Hutchins is already 56 percent over his $500,000 annual budget this year because of fuel costs.
"We just didn't anticipate gas prices going that high," he said.
These days, Hutchins isn't out checking on hydrant maintenance as he used to. He won't let his firefighters take the pumper to the grocery store. As other states are, he's leaving the big trucks at the station for many emergencies.
"It's just a different way of thinking," Hutchins said. "As a citizen, you expect us to be there to throw everything we've got at it, and if we're scrimping on fuel, it's up to the federal government to help."
Several efforts in Congress are trying to ease the struggles of volunteer firefighters.
Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Jason Altmire, both Pennsylvania Democrats, introduced legislation this week that would set up federal grants for fire stations within the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grants would reimburse volunteer fire departments up to 75 percent of the difference between current fuel prices and those in December 2007.
Casey estimates that the program would cost $50 million a year.
"What is the cost of not doing it?" Casey asked. "I don't want some rural family on some rural road experiencing a fire and a vehicle running out of gas and someone dying."
Another bill, by Republican Rep. John Boozman of Arkansas, would allow tax deductions for volunteer firefighters' travel expenses for their personal vehicles of up to $250 when they respond to emergencies.
Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina, a Republican, has a bill to increase mileage-rate tax deductions for firefighters responding to emergencies from 14 cents a mile to 44.5 cents.
In Pennsylvania, state commissioner Mann said the state was surveying all its fire and emergency medical-services units about their fuel usage in the past year, hoping to understand trends and develop ideas to save money. Pennsylvania has 2,400 volunteer fire departments covered by an estimated 70,000 volunteer firefighters.
Mann said departments might even find themselves cutting fundraising programs such as weekly bingo nights when winter came, as stations wouldn't be able to pay for heating costs. That'll make fundraising even harder.
"We're in a process of surviving now," Mann said.
Fire chiefs say they don't think prices will get better soon and that service could suffer eventually.
"I think we've reached some benchmarks that are not going to be crossed," Fontenot said. "When you start getting people a little less training, maybe they didn't make the response times they should have or could have. They're going to have some impact."