The dream of one volunteer firefighter,
network assists departments nationwide
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,
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.
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."
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
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
"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 .