Polk fire departments urge state not to cut BRIDGE program

Published 5:41 pm Thursday, April 2, 2009

Polk County fire departments are urging N.C. Governor Bev Perdue to reconsider her proposal to eliminate the state&squo;s BRIDGE (Building, Rehabilitating, Instructing, Developing, Growing, Employing) program.

The state&squo;s BRIDGE program takes low level youthful offenders and trains them in forest conservation work through the N.C. Forest Service. In addition to helping fight fires, the BRIDGE crews do carpentry work, storm and natural disaster cleanups, landscaping, trail building, roof work and work for school systems in 32 counties. The offenders in the program are paid $1 per day.

Gov. Perdue is currently proposing to cut the $910,761-a-year program as part of needed budget cuts. Local fire departments say that move would put a strain on area volunteers.

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Polk&squo;s six fire departments have sent a letter to Gov. Perdue urging her to reconsider totally eliminating the program and instead keeping half of the crews (see letter below).

Polk County has used the BRIDGE crews on many occasions, especially in helping fight forest fires and cleaning up disasters. Columbus Fire Chief Geoff Tennant says most recently, Polk used BRIDGE crews in the valley fire this spring during a recent Hogback Mountain fire and last summer&squo;s White Oak Mountain fire.

BRIDGE crews are trained to get to areas during fires that vehicles or equipment can&squo;t reach. Tennant says most importantly, BRIDGE crews are used to help contain fires while local fire crews work to save property and lives.

Tennant says if the BRIDGE crew program is eliminated, it will have a great impact on local fire departments in terms of man hours. Without BRIDGE crews, local departments will have to have more outside departments committed and local agencies will have to call on further outside agencies to help out in situations.

The BRIDGE crews are important, Tennant says, because a crew can be in Polk County within 45 minutes of being called. Tennant said there is a federal program, but the availability is limited and if you can get help from that program, it costs $6,200 per day.

If the program is cut, it will mean the loss of 21 jobs. The program includes from 65 to 84 inmates.

The BRIDGE program idea began after a 1985 fire in Burke County known as the High Peak fire burned 5,000 acres and 27 homes. State and firefighting officials realized then that there wasn&squo;t enough manpower to fight a fire of that caliber and the BRIDGE program started two years later. The following is the letter issued by the Polk County fire departments. This article is being written on behalf of the six fire departments that serve Polk County. We have recently become aware that the budget submitted by Governor Perdue calls for the elimination of the bridge crew program which is conducted jointly by the North Carolina Forest Service and the Department of Corrections. The bridge crews, which are comprised of youthful offenders, provide valuable assistance to the fire service in Polk County as well as our entire region. They also provide other valuable services that benefit the public as a whole across the entire state. Since its inception in 1986 after the fires that burned across Western North Carolina in 1985, the bridge crew program has made the following contributions to the fire service and the citizens of Polk County.

They have spent 3,476 hours in assisting with controlled burns of forest land. They have assisted the fire service by providing 6,447 hours of fire suppression support and 2,021 hours of other services to the general public in Polk County. Since the inception of the program some 4,000 youthful offenders have served as part of the bridge crew program. While the program has sought to demonstrate to these young men that there is another way to make one&squo;s way in this world, it has not been universally successful in that regard. However, there is at least one success story where a young man who is a graduate of the bridge crew program went on to receive an associates degree in forestry.

The members of the 14 bridge crews that currently serve the citizens of this county and state are paid the sum of one dollar per day per man. The real cost of the program is found in the salaries of the crew leaders who are employees of either the North Carolina Forestry Service or the Department of Corrections. Vehicles, equipment and fuel costs are another major budgetary item for the bridge crew program.

What are the advantages of this program to the fire service and to the citizens we serve? These individuals have received training in the techniques that are well suited to fire suppression in wildfire situations. In the western portion of North Carolina the basic tactic used in wild land fire fighting is often the digging ditches designed to confine and contain the fire. Much of our terrain is not suitable for mechanized equipment and is not accessible to fire apparatus. The bridge crews can be used to effectively contain the fire in the wooded areas while fire service personnel are concentrating their efforts on structure protection or even evacuation of people from areas impacted by the wildfire.

The absence of these bridge crews will mean that the fire service will have to stretch its resources, particularly manpower, beyond our ability to do so and still remain effective. We will have to be prepared to commit a significantly higher number of man-hours to the suppression of wildfires than we do now. In this day and time when it is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain volunteers this will be a difficult task. Added to this is the fact that the current state of our economy makes it more difficult for volunteers to commit large amounts of time to wildfire operations at the expense of their jobs. Employers are now much less willing to tolerate absenteeism due to being involved in community service than they once were.

A copy of this letter will be forwarded to the office of Governor Perdue asking most respectfully that she reconsider her decision to eliminate the bridge crew program. We will ask that she restore seven of the 14 bridge crews that have been eliminated from the budget for the next two years. Difficult decisions have to be made and the fire service recognizes that we too must bear a portion of the burden. We do think, however, that the total elimination of the bridge crew program is neither wise nor a practical action.

We respectfully request that you as individual citizens whose lives and property may be impacted by this decision join with us in urging Governor Perdue to restore a portion of the bridge crew program.

‐ Columbus, Tryon, Saluda, Green Creek, Mill Spring and Sunny View Fire Departments