Firefighting is a human endeavor, with selfless individuals working to protect people and their property. But it is also an equipment-intensive operation, with critical vehicles and gear requiring consistent and routine maintenance.
Rural communities across Minnesota often face difficulties procuring the funding necessary to maintain or replace that equipment, resulting in communities at risk. Fortunately, utilities like Great River Energy and its member-owner cooperatives work diligently to educate and assist with the available financial resources necessary to complete projects.
When the City of McGregor, Minnesota, outgrew its current fire hall, city officials turned to its local energy cooperative Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) and Great River Energy for help.
“Right from the onset of the project, and especially now with increasing construction material costs, we knew a new fire hall was not a reality without the assistance of Mille Lacs Energy and Great River Energy,” said Scott Turner, retired Aitkin County law enforcement official and volunteer fire department official. “From the fire department to city officials and residents, everyone is extremely grateful for their involvement in our needs.”
Rural fire departments across Minnesota share McGregor’s sentiments. In 2019, the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association and the Minnesota State Fire Department Associations reported Minnesota as the 48th-best state in terms of statewide funding for fire departments. Larger cities are often more able to replace aging equipment or address sustainability goals. But rural departments struggle to replace aging, non-operational equipment and often need to turn to alternative funding options, like small community fundraisers.
Great River Energy and its member cooperatives have historically stepped in to assist many of these fire departments and communities.
The McGregor volunteer fire department shares a fire hall built in 1980 with city hall and an ambulance service garage. It houses its five fire trucks and two ambulances in a building with only three garage doors.
“We often have to juggle which trucks to get out when a call comes in, which is not easy or safe with five trucks having to exit though only two doors and then requires backing in on a city street when returning to the hall — all in close proximity to a school,” Turner said. “In addition, we have to drive to a storage building to pick up critical equipment, because it does not fit in the current building.”
Great River Energy’s economic development team assisted MLEC and the City of McGregor in successfully preparing an application for a $300,000 grant for a new fire hall through the USDA Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant (REDLG) program. MLEC matched at 20%, with the full $360,000 passed on as a zero-interest loan to the city. Bids were recently awarded on a $2 million project for a new 8,400-square-foot fire hall, with plans to break ground this spring.
Turner said the assistance provided by Great River Energy and MLEC offers McGregor advantages beyond the financial impact.
“A new hall in a location on the edge of town, near the two major highways, will significantly improve our response time,” he said. “We serve a large fire and rescue area and when accidents happen, time is critical to saving lives.”
As a small town near St. Cloud, Minnesota, St. Augusta originally contracted its fire services with three separate entities. When one needed to triple its fees, St. Augusta decided to form its own department. Stearns Electric Association and Great River Energy helped the city over the years with several projects, including funding for a new fire hall and tanker pumper. The cooperatives also helped fill gaps in funding through zero-percent financing for necessary equipment.
“From the point where we started on our own, much of the equipment we were able to find was used, old and in need of continuous maintenance,” said Bill McCabe, St. Augusta City Commissioner. “From a safety and operational perspective, the department is extremely appreciative to Stearns and Great River Energy for the assurance our equipment will work and be reliable, not requiring our firefighters to call for backup from other sources.”
Stearns Electric and Great River Energy have continued to be instrumental in St. Augusta’s fire department. In 2019, the entities were again able to assist St. Augusta by offering financing for a new $500,000 fire truck to replace one purchased in 1987.
“Having the latest technology helps us meet current safety standards for our volunteer firefighters,” said McCabe. “But beyond that, their assistance benefits the whole community by allowing us to maintain a competitive tax rate and save our taxpayers the burden.”
When new fire trucks were needed at Rush City, Minnesota, a city of approximately 3,000 people, East Central Energy (ECE) was eager to help. Great River Energy helped ECE secure $240,000 for a new ladder truck in 2003, and then again in 2018, helping the cooperative borrow $252,000 toward replacing a pumper truck.
The funding was secured as zero-interest loans through the REDLG program, designed for rural projects through local utility organizations. The loans pass through local utilities to local businesses for projects that will create and retain employment in rural areas.
“We help local entities through the process of acquiring the loans and know that it saves them and their taxpayers a significant amount of money,” said John Bosman, ECE business accounts specialist. “We already serve them for the electricity needs, so it makes perfect sense to be committed to their community development.”
Access to funding for rural fire departments results in better equipment, more suitable facilities and safer communities. It also creates much better conditions for the firefighters themselves.
In the McGregor Fire Department’s current location, trucks are often packed so close that it is difficult to walk between them. With the new location, each truck and necessary equipment will be staged behind a dedicated door. This will allow for more thorough truck inspections and a far safer route into and out of the fire hall.
“We want to create an environment that is attractive to the next generation of firefighters,” Turner said. “We are extremely thankful for MLEC and Great River Energy assisting us in building a culture to support that effort.”