By Jennifer M. Latzke
High Plains Journal – March 21, 2017
If you were in the midst of the recent wildfires, chances are there was a familiar face in the turnout gear fighting alongside you trying to save your livelihood.
Volunteers—our neighbors, family and friends—comprise 70 percent of the firefighters in the United States, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. The NVFC also reports that small and mid-sized communities, with populations under 10,000 people, are protected primarily with volunteer firefighters with some paid firefighters assisting. They respond to all sorts of emergencies and their training has to cover everything from medical incidents, to terrorism responses, to water rescues and, as we most recently have seen, wildfire and rural fire responses.
These volunteer firefighters save local communities nearly $140 billion each year, according to the NVFC. In some communities, the cost of replacing volunteers with paid firefighters is just not feasible.
And they don’t just protect their own towns and counties, but they respond to other areas when the need is the greatest, putting their lives and equipment to use for neighbors they may never know.
As we saw with the Anderson Creek wildfires in 2016, and now this most recent batch of fires that crossed Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado, when the call comes out, volunteer firefighters respond. In this year’s fires, 38 counties sent firefighters to Kansas alone, according to the Kansas National Guard.
But these rural volunteer departments need our help.
The age of our volunteer firefighters is rising, and the NVFC reports that attracting younger members is difficult. The increased training volunteers need to respond to the wide array of incidents takes time. Many households have two working adults, and volunteer firefighting can be difficult for those who need to arrange childcare. There’s the time off from actual work for employees who need to run calls, and the loss of those hourly wages to consider for volunteers. And, in many of our rural communities, there are simply more older citizens who need services than younger people available to serve.
Just the time commitment to respond to calls, train, raise funds, maintain vehicles and the station and then fill out administrative paperwork is almost a full-time career in itself.
But even more troubling is the need for fundraising for our volunteer responders and their departments. The NVFC estimates the cost to train and equip just one firefighter can exceed $20,000. A fire pumper can cost anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000, and a ladder truck can cost almost $750,000. That’s a lot to expect those annual chili and soup fundraisers to cover.
Our rural volunteer firefighters don’t ask for a lot for all they provide. They do the job because they want to give back to their communities. They want to help their neighbors and they find the challenges of the duty rewarding in their own rights.
The least we can do is support them any way we can. We can either open up our wallets when the boot gets passed, or raise our hand and volunteer when the call comes out for new blood.
Because maybe this wildfire didn’t burn your ranch. But the next one just might.