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Rural Missouri Magazine

Helping Our Own
The dream of one volunteer firefighter,
network assists departments nationwide

by Heather Berry

The Gainesville Fire Department recently received a $75,000 ladder truck from a department in Rose Tree, Penn. From left: Bob Rich, Robert Rich (back), Bob Stanton, Terry Sheppard and "Helping Our Own" founder, Mark Warnick.

Does the rural volunteer fire department in your area run on a tax-based budget or one made up of dues paid by the patrons they serve? Don't feel bad if you don't know the answer — many people don't.

Tax-funded rural fire departments have a regular source of income, but dues-supported departments depend on memberships and fund-raisers for money to operate. The plight of rural fire departments in Missouri made Gainesville's Mark Warnick start looking for the support they needed.

"When I walked into the Brixey-Rockbridge Volunteer Fire Department about five years ago, I told a guy 'Nice station, but where's your equipment?'" said Warnick.

"He said, 'This is it, and it's all paid for.' "Don't get me wrong, they had a good building with a 1955 pumper truck, about 200 feet of supply line and an attack hose about 350 feet long, but that's about it for structure fire fighting."

Warnick, 39, has been in fire services for 17 years. He tells alarming tales of short-handed departments with only two coats and no helmets to share among 12 firefighters; departments that have to wait more than an hour for jaws of life extrication equipment to arrive at a rural scene because they don't have a set, and departments that can barely afford to keep gas in the trucks.

He knows of some firefighters who help pay department expenses out of their own pockets.

"We've got about 4,100 volunteer fire departments across the nation in the same shape (as us) or worse," says Warnick. "I have letters where departments describe having a tobacco barn for their fire house and they're running with a 1940s piece of equipment. There's one department in Alabama which is trying to work efficiently out of a barn where chickens actually roost on their truck."

According to Warnick, it takes a minimum of $100,000 per year to properly run a department, but the majority of rural departments don't even have 1 percent of that total.

The Brixey-Rockbridge board asked Warnick, as their assistant fire chief, to find the equipment they needed to upgrade their department. And, of course, they told Warnick to find the equipment for the cheapest price possible.

So Warnick devised a plan which would benefit all the rural volunteer fire departments in Ozark county. He also met with lawmakers in Jefferson City to garner support for state legislation to remove liability from fire departments who donate used equipment.

What started out as a plan to help his local department has now grown into a nationwide group of volunteers which Warnick heads up from his Gainesville home.

The goal of "Helping Our Own" is to raise awareness of rural volunteer fire department needs, to get help to those who need it and to unify firefighters nationally. The Pennsylvania Fireman magazine heard about the department's need and printed an article about Warnick's efforts — and Warnick was amazed at the response.

"The day after the article came out, I had more equipment than I needed," says the White River Valley Electric Cooperative member. "It was good, useable equipment and best of all, it was free."

White River Electric Cooperative even donated a computer which Warnick says is used to record national incident fire reports.

Warnick went back to his department's board and said "You wanted equipment and I've got it. I recommend we take a rental truck and go pick it up. And I think we can make our money back on the trip because we have some excess equipment."

The trip was going to cost around $3,000 and the board liked his idea. Warnick collected "wish lists" from the other departments in the county so they could help outfit anyone with a need. The only cost to the departments would be to pay some of the shipping.

So last May, Warnick and several volunteer firemen made their first trip east to pick up equipment. On their return, they called the department and asked them to have all the fire trucks out of the bays. Thinking they couldn't possibly have that much equipment, they only pulled out one truck. There was so much equipment they ended up pulling out three fire trucks.

"From that trip, we basically outfitted every volunteer rural fire department in Ozark County which wanted help."

That was the beginning of the organization Warnick calls "Helping Our Own — Firefighters Helping Firefighters." "Currently I have 44 state coordinators and a network of 150 other volunteers who make this work," says Warnick.

"The program virtually pays for itself because the departments who need something pay for shipping."

Amazingly enough Warnick and his helpers do this for the love of their fellow firemen and the good it does for those departments in need. No one is paid for their time.

Since last May, volunteer firemen have made five trips across the United States to pick up gear, adding up to an astounding $8 million in equipment donations.

"Our goal right now is to help fire departments who have $15,000 or under as their annual budget. Once they're taken care of, I'll raise the limit," says Warnick. "If we find equipment in another state and they have a rural fire department in need, we keep the equipment in their state."

Sen. Doyle Childers, a strong supporter of "Helping Our Own," has a special place in his heart for the work Warnick is doing.

"As a former rural volunteer firefighter, I definitely have sympathy for what these firemen face," says the Reeds Spring senator. Sen. Childers has worked closely with Warnick, holding meetings with leaders of fire services across Missouri to figure out what legislation is needed. Recently, the senator was able to insert $600,000 into the state budget for fire training, funds which would come from tobacco settlement money.

"It's currently in the Senate and has favorable support," says Sen. Childers. "It's by no means all the money the departments could use, but it's definitely something to build on."

Warnick says he would love nothing else than to have no reason for a group like Helping Our Own. But until that time, he's dedicating every waking hour to its goals.

"As a firefighter I could possibly save 20 to 30 lives in my lifetime and maybe a couple of million dollars," says Warnick, "but with this program, I can save thousands of lives and billions of dollars easily, just by helping equip the people who need it."

You may contact Mark Warnick at HC 1, Box 8, Gainesville, MO 65655, by calling (417) 679-2828 or by e-mail. Helping Our Own is also online .

Rural Missouri - September 2014
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