Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 22, 2013

Community servants

Rural fire departments face unique challenges

Charles Romans
For The Independent

LOAD — “The biggest problem is manpower,” said Brandon Miller, who is the fire chief of the Load Volunteer Fire Department in Greenup County. “Times are getting tough and everyone is trying to hustle to make a living, so nobody has time like they may have had in the past.”

Unfortunately, because of the lack of volunteers, Miller said it may require more than one rural department being paged to effectively deal with a fire emergency.

Rural fire departments, like the one where Miller serves, have all of the problems any fire department is forced to deal with plus their own unique ones.

“It takes around $3,000 to equip one firefighter, not to mention a $5,000 air pack,” he said.

Fuel and electricity are also financial issues as are all of the other equipment costs for the trucks and tools necessary to keep a community safe.

Distance is also a major factor with rural firefighting, as well as the terrain itself. Whereas an urban fire department can depend on somewhat shorter distances and more accessible roads, rural fire departments typically travel farther (which means more fuel in vehicles that are not, by nature, fuel efficient) along roads typically narrower with the added challenges of creeks, hillsides and far fewer fire hydrants.

More hydrants have been added in areas like Ky. 7 in Greenup, but frequently rural fire trucks must depend upon its reservoirs or being able to pump water from existing waterways. Added into those challenges are wildlife hazards and fewer places where traffic can pull safely off road to yield right of way to emergency vehicles.

Communities depend upon local fire departments in many ways other than emergencies. Often fire departments are called by residents simply because they do not know who else to call, and those departments do their best to respond to every call regardless of whether or not that call is specifically their responsibility. Residents routinely call fire departments to report road hazards such as downed trees — and typically they respond, spending the necessary time and effort to clear the danger, to prevent potential accidents and to keep their neighbors safe.

Fire departments are part of the first line of defense along with police and ambulance first responders. In a rural setting the time and distance issues are major factors in determining who can reach the emergency first. Even considering rural departments might have to travel farther than their urban counterparts, they are still usually closer than other emergency agencies. This necessitates frequently providing the first medical treatment, the first hazardous material response and the first traffic control at the scene of the accident.

“We know the area because we live here,” explained Ron Braden, a retired rural firefighter with more than 30 years of experience. “We usually got there first because we knew where we were going.”

Braden also points out more is expected of fire departments in general than was expected from them in the past. “We always did, not just what was expected, but everything that we were able to do,” he said. “Bad weather, bad road access and trying to find enough water were just things we dealt with. You just do everything you can.”

“Everything you can” frequently means rural fire department volunteers sacrifice their own time and money to do a job more than necessary. But any help is useful.

“You don’t have to be the one running into the burning building,” said Ron Tomlin, a volunteer who works with Miller. “There are a lot of ways that you can help, even if it is only being the one who hands the water to the firefighter who just came out of the building. There are a lot of things that you can do that would help us out.”

Rural (and all other) fire departments don’t simply disappear when the fire is out or the ambulances leave. Their support goes beyond that because the safety of the community is more than dousing flames or moving wrecked vehicles. When Miller’s community flooded in 2010, the fire department — and several other departments — responded with four-wheel-drive vehicles, fire engines and boats. They transported people and livestock to safer, higher ground and kept a watchful eye on the floodwaters for more than 24 hours nonstop. But their efforts didn’t stop there.

Typical of a major area flood, many could not return to their homes for days or even weeks. The fire department became a hub of activity where residents could receive clean drinking water and Red Cross cleaning supplies, and the members of the fire department continued to volunteer their time and efforts to coordinate and to distribute those supplies.

The firehouse kitchen also operated constantly to provide food for community members trying to put their houses back in order.