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Return of bingo good for volunteer firefighters of Panola

Sardis Lower Lake Fire Department has resumed bingo games at the station on Hwy. 35. Doors are opened at 5 p.m. each Saturday. The return of bingo is one of the regular public events that have started to emerge from months of suspension while people observed stay at home orders and limits on crowd sizes during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Part of the cleaning and safety precautions necessary for public gatherings is a strict limit on occupants in the building during bingo, and the fire department only allows entrance to the first 90 people that arrive each week.

The opening of bingo nights for the fire department is welcome news for area residents who enjoy spending a few dollars for the games of chance and visiting with friends and neighbors. It’s better news for the fire department, which uses the profits to upgrade equipment, pay for training material, and generally improve their ability to provide fire safety coverage in their assigned district.

Each of the volunteer departments in Panola have creative projects and events to raise money for their group, some with raffles and auctions, others with food sales or any one of a list of sundry events.

Besides fighting fires, assisting at car accident scenes, helping law enforcement in a variety of search-and-rescue and manhunts, and countless other duties, each department works many hours a year on fundraising projects to fill gaps in their annual budgets.

Daniel Cole, director of Panola County’s Emergency Operations office works with the association of volunteer fire chiefs and is a go-between for the departments and the Board of Supervisors. He said the return of bingo is much needed, as is the other fundraisers that other departments conduct each year.

“Our volunteer departments have lost a tremendous amount of money during this COVID situation and several of them are hurting financially. Once they get their fundraisers going again I really hope the people of the county do their best to support their local fire departments,” Cole said. “They do an awesome job, every one of them, and this county cannot do without them.”

Volunteer departments are allowed to operate autonomously (mostly) in Panola County with the Board of Supervisors usually agreeing with each department’s preferences on general matters, and helping them apply for state and federal grants to help fund their budgets.

Fire protection funding is built into the county’s budget each year, and departments also get help with building and equipment maintenance as needed.

Panola County’s fire safety coverage comes largely from the 14 all-volunteer fire departments scattered around the county, and the Batesville Fire Department, which is also part of the volunteer system because it has some unpaid members as well as career firefighters.

About 70 percent of the county’s population, and a higher percentage of its property, depend on the men and women of those volunteer units outside the city who respond to hundreds of emergency calls every year.

BFD also assists surrounding volunteer departments on larger structure fires, and often during daytime calls when volunteers at the county departments are sometimes away from the area at their regular jobs.

“They are always faithful to send support when the volunteer departments need help, and Panola County residents are fortunate that we have really good fire protection throughout Batesville and in all our districts,” Cole said. “We might have two departments squabble about something, but when there’s an emergency you will see both departments right there working side by side and getting the job done. Firefighters are like a big family and we’re lucky to have some really dedicated volunteers to keep us safe.”

Homes and businesses inside the limits of the City of Batesville are covered by one of the best fire departments in the state, and BFD is among the highest funded, per capita, firefighting departments in Mississippi.

When the new station on Van Voris St. is completed, and additional firefighters hired, city officials are hoping state fire authorities will assign Batesville a better fire protection rating, resulting in a reduction of premiums for residents and businesses, and making the city more attractive to potential industry.

Outside the city limits, though, the coverage falls to the volunteer departments which have far less funding and avenues of support. That’s where fundraisers and bingo help bridge the gap in needed and available money for monthly operations.

“People in this county have always been very supportive of our local volunteer fire departments because they realize how important they are, and I hope each community will step up and help these departments as they get more and more of these fundraisers started back,” Cole said.

“The supervisors voted each of the departments a stipend this year and that $2,000 helped them along, but it just wasn’t hardly anything compared to what they are usually able raise in a normal year,” he said.