CDBG funds aid rural municipalities in providing quality emergency services

TML Communications Specialist

In the past 20 years, tornados have increasingly become a fact of life for residents of the city of Loretto.

Data from natural disaster and weather experts rank Loretto above the state and national levels for tornado risk with the southern area of Lawrence County experiencing an average of two tornadic events per year since recordkeeping began in the state in 1916. In the past 30 years alone, at least 15 major tornadic events have occurred in the area near Loretto, some of them deadly. On May 18, 1995, a tornado that struck Lawrence County killed three and injured 32. The following year, two tornadoes that hit the area injured 12 people. In 1998, the first F-5 tornado ever recorded in Tennessee also struck the area.

Loretto City Administrator Keith Smith said the city had an alarm warning system several years ago in the event of tornados, but the city had to set it off manually whenever there was an issue. When that system was no longer in use, Smith said many residents became concerned about safety.

“We are in an area where there are a lot of tornados, and we didn’t have any sort of warning system in place,” he said. “Our citizens were concerned, so we decided to start seeking grant money for new sirens.”

The city applied for and received a $133,455 Community Development Block Grant in 2013 to purchase an early warning siren system.
“We were able to install three sirens through the program,” Smith said. “The first siren is near our elementary and high schools. The second is in our industrial park, and the third is in our city park. These sirens cover everything in our city limits, and actually a lot of people who live outside the city limits can hear them as well. These sirens can be a life saver, and we are very appreciative that we were able to use this grant for this program. We wouldn’t have been able to do this on our own.”

The sirens are set up so that the National Weather Service triggers an alarm whenever tornadic activity is detected within a mile radius of the city.
“We could have set it up so they went off every time there was a tornado reported in Lawrence County, but we were afraid that would make people complacent and they would ignore the sirens when they went off,” he said. “We chose to set it within that mile-radius, because we want people to know this is a real emergency.”
It wouldn’t be the last time the city used the program for emergency management projects. In 2016, the city of Loretto also received $315,000 from the CDBG program to purchase a new fire truck.

“One of our fire trucks was made in 1974, another in 1992, and the third a 1997,” he said. “We realized we had to put the ’74 truck out of commission. We were able to use the grant for a new truck, which is tremendous for our citizens. It helped us keep our ISO rating up and maintain our level of service. Our city’s budget is around $80,000 and that new truck cost more than $300,000, so we needed that grant”

Smith said the funds Loretto has received through the CDBG program are essential to his and other smaller municipalities.
“Losing this program would be devastating to us,” Smith said. “We have used it several times over the years. Small communities like us would suffer without this, because we don’t have the funds to do these projects. We would either have to raise taxes or just tell people we can’t do this project.”
Kent Archer, CDBG director for TECD’s Community and Rural Development Division, said the grants are useful for communities that want to upgrade their available emergency services.

“If you have a piece of equipment that no longer meets new compliance or rating standards or is requiring a lot of maintenance, it can be useful to have that documentation that shows you are having to take this ambulance into the shop every so many thousand miles,” he said. “Or perhaps you have a rural hospital that closed a few years ago and you need better ambulance service because that closest hospital is now 30 or 40 miles away. We see a lot of reasons why cities need these grants.”
Archer said grants that go for fire and EMS projects often have the most instantaneous effect on a community.

“We have heard stories about how a house that burned down because the fire truck broke down on its way there,” he said. “Just by having that new truck, the reliability for that community has increased. For a lot of these communities, they have had equipment for years and years, gotten really great life and use out of it, and maintained it as well as they can. It just gets to the point they can’t maintain it anymore, and if your population isn’t growing, you need to find the funds elsewhere. A lot of times, our matching funds for fire and EMS projects come from pancake breakfasts, fill-the-boot fundraisers, and community donations.”

As police departments typically can apply for federal grants through the U.S. Department of Justice, the CDBG program focuses more on fire departments and emergency management projects, like ambulances. Additionally, many of these grants go toward smaller or rural communities that might not otherwise be able to afford expensive equipment.
Also separate from fire and EMS grants are disaster relief grants given through the CDBG program. CDBG Disaster Recovery Program funds are only eligible to areas that have been declared major disaster areas by the president and are geared more toward disaster relief and recovery than improving emergency services.
For the city of Graysville, a $250,000 grant awarded from the program in 2013 helped finance the construction of a new fire hall at the city’s new municipal campus. Graysville Mayor Jimmy Massengale said all of the city offices, including the fire department, had been operating out of the same building, but when a new elementary school opened in the city, the vacant former school building presented the city with an opportunity to meet growing needs.
“We refurbished the old school that was downtown into the city hall,” he said. “We also used a CDBG water grant to move our water downtown as well. When that was completed, we applied for a CDBG grant to build a new fire hall on the city hall property.”

With city hall taking up the former elementary school building, the city decided to build a new fire hall where the school’s playground had once been located. The new fire hall also presented Graysville with an opportunity to help provide better ambulance services to the city and southern Rhea County.
“Our ambulance service is under the county service, and they wanted to put a medical unit in the southern end of the county,” Massengale said. “They asked if we could house their ambulance. So, we built a bay for the fire department and one for the ambulance service. The county is also paying us so much a month to house their services there, which will help us. Without a local ambulance service, it took 10 or 11 minutes for the county ambulance service to get here. With a service located in the city, it only takes one or two minutes.”
While interior work is still ongoing, Massengale said the building has great potential for the entire community. Future plans for the site also call for a helipad for emergency medical flights on the site of the former school playground, an area for community events, and solar panels for the roofs of the fire hall, city water plant, and city hall.

“The firemen are excited that they get to have a nice fire hall,” he said. “Our citizens are looking forward to this, and they are really appreciative of this project. The ability to get that grant is greatly appreciated,” Massengale said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Graysville. Without this, our city hall would probably be under its old roof, which was leaking and right next to the railroad tracks. It might have been years before we could afford to build a nice facility. Rural areas are very limited on their finances. We might have been able to raise enough funding to house just a fire truck but not an ambulance. This allowed us to build something that a much bigger city would be able to build. With our size and our revenue, we couldn’t have even done half of this. A lot of our community is elderly and they are on fixed incomes. They can’t afford for us to raise taxes or increase fire rates to do certain projects.”

In West Tennessee, the town of Halls took a $242,659 grant from the CDBG program and used it to not only increase fire protection but also reduce costs for citizens. Before receiving the grant, Halls Fire Chief Donald Gooch said the city was operating one vehicle for first responders with the department and a second vehicle that served as a brush truck. The grant allowed the city to purchase a single vehicle to do both jobs.
“This truck gives us the ability to fight structure and brush fires; perform extrication calls, first responder calls, and medical calls; provide mobile support with lighting; and deal with emergency situations,” Gooch said. “There is also room for those who have been displaced by a fire to sit while we deal with the situation. By having only one vehicle, we cut costs in terms of maintenance since we don’t have to maintain both vehicles. We don’t have to choose which vehicle we bring to a scene. We have saved the taxpayers money and cut our own insurance costs in half.”

With the acquisition of the new vehicle, Gooch said the town was able to sell one of the original vehicles to another department in North Carolina and is interested in selling the second. The proceeds of these sales will help with some funds for the department.
“This has allowed us to better serve our community and have safer equipment,” Gooch said. “We also have more efficient equipment. Our department was ecstatic about it, and they are still ecstatic about it. They want to serve their community, and this helps them do it. The public and the taxpayers are the ones who are really reaping the benefit, though. They received better response times, better equipment to serve them, and saved them money.”
Gooch said without the grant, Halls would never have been able to purchase the new truck.
“I can’t speak for big cities, for rural cities it is almost impossible to make these kinds of purchases,” he said. “We need programs like these.”