As gasoline and diesel prices tick toward $4 a gallon and some predict $5 in the near future, many agencies are looking for ways to cope with the new reality of filling up tanks.
Many departments already are taking measures to reduce fuel use.
Danville Fire Department has cut its fuel use over the past several years, but the budget for fuel went from $18,500 last year to $21,000 this year to account for the possibility of fuel costing $4 a gallon, Interim Fire Chief Woody Ball said.
Since 2008, the department’s diesel consumption went from 4,313 gallons to 3,530 gallons last year and a projected total of 3,300 gallons for the current year.
Ball said several measures have been taken to accomplish the reduction, but many costs are unavoidable for the fire department to maintain its current level of service and certification. He said this not only includes runs to fires and car wrecks but also some driver training.
Boyle County Fire Chief Donnie Sexton said his department also has dealt with the crunch at the pump while the economy has made overall budgets leaner.
“We try to limit anything that isn’t essential, but we have to do certain things in emergency services," Sexton said. “When the alarm sounds, we have to go.”
Ball said the fire engines are required to have 55-gallon tanks, but the large, equipment-laden trucks have to stay nearly full and often have to re-fuel when sitting at the scene of a fire for several hours.
Boyle County Public Works Director Duane Campbell said the fuel budget for his department has actually gone down in recent years, from $58,000 last year to $50,000 this year, even as fuel prices have trended upward. However, Campbell said there is a chance the department will go over budget if fuel prices continue to rise.
Campbell said the county’s public works fleet that once consisted primarily of large dump trucks that get 4-5 miles per gallon has gradually been updated with smaller vehicles. He is looking for grants that will allow the department to purchase even more fuel-efficient vehicles, including hybrid work trucks.
To limit fuel usage, most agency heads have tried similar tactics, including consolidating trips and turning off vehicles whenever possible.
Ball said Danville Fire Department tries to call off trucks coming from further away once the first crews arrive and report that a situation is under control. Firefighters also are using golf carts obtained with a grant for hydrant testing and other things in close proximity to the downtown station.
For law enforcement agencies, though, containing costs is more problematic. Patrolling is constant, and vehicles get relatively low gas mileage. Not only do officers have to patrol locally, but they often must transport people to juvenile facilities and jails in other jurisdictions.
Danville Police Chief Jay Newell said his fuel budget of $105,000 is higher than last year’s to account for what was expected to be $4-a-gallon gasoline, but three quarters of the way through the fiscal year, Newell said the department has managed to spend about half that.
Newell said Febuary’s fuel usage was indicative of a downward trend in recent years, as the department went from 2,809 gallons in February 2010 to 2,021 in February 2011.
“It looks like conservation efforts are actually starting to pay off,” Newell said. “We try to never leave the cars running unless you are just running in to pick something up ... with the home fleet program, we are asking everyone to conserve and keep the car parked unless necessary.”
Ball said it may not seem like much of a sacrifice, but restrictions on taking smaller vehicles with gasoline engines out for food or other supplies have not been good for morale.
“Most people work an eight-hour shift, but when our guys are in here for 24 hours without leaving, that’s three meals,” Ball said.
While most officials said their departments will be able to make it through the rest of this year, the prospect of $5 or even $6 a gallon for fuel has forced departments to plan for even more drastic austerity measures.
Newell has had to develop contingency plans for the most extreme circumstances that would involve two patrol cars per shift to cover the city’s three sectors instead of four officers in four vehicles.
“I have ideas on how we would reduce fuel usage significantly, but I can’t say that wouldn’t be without some interruption to the current level of service,” Newell said.
Sexton said the high fuel prices already have forced him to make difficult decisions.
“Every dollar we spend on gasoline is a dollar we can’t spend on training or equipment,” Sexton said.