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Volunteer Fire Departments Keep Rural America Safe with Fewer Numbers

posted on February 26, 2010

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 72 percent of the more than 1.2 million firefighters in the United States are volunteers.

In most rural areas, volunteers make up the vast majority of firefighters. In South Dakota, for example, nearly 95 percent of those answering the call are volunteers, and even the State Capitol of Pierre is protected by a volunteer fire department.

Producer David Miller spent a few days with several fire companies in South Dakota last fall and filed this report.

Volunteer Fire Departments Keep Rural America Safe with Fewer Numbers

A fire has been reported behind a garage in Beresford, South Dakota. A crew from Beresford Fire and Rescue is dispatched to fight the fire. Though each one of these firefighters is state certified, and have varying degrees of experience, all them are volunteers.

Wrapped up in this fire call are hundreds of hours of training, days of dropping projects at the office to help members of the community and nights of leaving warm beds to fight house fires. For many small towns in rural America, just being able to muster a crew like this is becoming increasingly difficult.

Tarz Mullinex is the Chief of Beresford Fire and Rescue in Beresford, South Dakota.

Tarz Mullinex, Beresford Fire and Rescue: "You go through times when there are a shortage of people. In our community especially, like, like, most smaller communities, and that, there are a lot of people that work out of town. So, you always cherish anybody that happens to be employed in town or a business person to be on the fire department for the day time fires. At night time, that doesn't seem to be much of a problem."

In South Dakota volunteers have to earn basic certification as a firefighter to remain with their local departments. Each firefighter is required to continually work to keep their skills sharp. In September of 2009, a fire school was held in Beresford, South Dakota to help hone those skills. Typical of schools held across the United States, trainees were certified and hands on experience was provided covering situations firefighters might encounter only once or twice in a career.

Firefighters from nine fire companies were in attendance. Some were from Beresford...

Eric Livingston, Beresford, South Dakota: "Yeah, I guess it -- it makes a guy think, you know, if it is really that dark in a real, you know, a real situation."

...while others drove nearly 80 miles one way to receive training.

Tonia Larson, Flandreau, South Dakota: "You get to do things that you don't normally get to do. I mean a lot of times the smaller towns don't get a lot of calls and so when you come to the training the one time you do get a call you at least know half way decent that you're going to do."

Volunteer firefighting departments pay their expenses through the collection of tax dollars and donations. Some of the volunteers are paid for their work while others just receive benefits like the payment of certification fees.

While some U.S. towns struggle to keep a full compliment of volunteers others have enough to fill the roster. Beresford, population 3,500, has nearly 40 members but some fire companies in South Dakota have as few as seven. To handle the shortage, South Dakota uses a program called mutual aid. When a large fire occurs in a community with a small department, nearby towns are notified and additional crews are dispatched.

Sometimes getting people who live locally, and are available between 7am and 6pm, isn't the only problem. Finding businesses in town willing to let employees go at a moments notice occasionally can be difficult to locate. There are no laws requiring business owners in South Dakota to let volunteer firefighters answer emergency calls while they are working. For employers it becomes a delicate balance between running a business and protecting the community. Johnson Feed in nearby Canton, South Dakota is an example of a business willing to sacrifice its workforce for community safety. When an emergency call comes in, the five volunteers working for the company must decide how many can leave the office.

Ron Ingebrigtson is both an employee of Johnson Feed and a volunteer firefighter with Canton Fire Rescue.

Ron Ingebrigtson, Canton, South Dakota: " order to protect the community Johnson Feed, as well as any business here in town that has employees that's also firefighters, just realized that that's part of -- of the community. They have to let these people go to protect the community and it's not only this community, but because of the low forces of volunteers nowadays and especially during the day during the work time, normal work time hours, mutual calls."

Russ Heggen also is part of Canton Fire Rescue. His certifications include Firefighter, EMS Instructor and Agricultural Rescue Instructor. With more than a decade and a half of experience, Heggen understands why it's hard to get people to become volunteer firefighters.

Russ Heggen, Canton, South Dakota: "Get down to the very basic the families of 7-10 kids are gone. So, you have a smaller base of people to choose from. Then you have economics. Years ago you didn't have two parents working, you had one. Years ago the large portion of people worked in the town they lived in where there's a lot of them that, you know, they have to commute to work -- leave the town. ...there's also more and more distractions. ...If you -- if you want to have a good town to live in, you have to give something to it."

The number of calls per year varies for volunteer fire departments across South Dakota. For Beresford, the ambulance crew makes 350 runs annually and the fire company answers nearly 100 calls each year. Of those only a few are large fires that require the use of specialized firefighting techniques.

The motivation to join a volunteer fire department varies. But nearly all agree they have taken on the challenge to help out in their communities.

Eric Livingston, Beresford, South Dakota: "Yeah it's a sense of pride, you know, knowing that you're available for them whenever you're needed I guess."

Tonia Larson, Flandreau, South Dakota: "it's just a rush that you can't get from anything else and then it's also a civic duty. I mean, I'm too old to go out and be in the Army or anything like that but this is someplace or some way I can help out at home."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.