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Rural Missouri Magazine

Fighting fire with desire
Being a volunteer firefighter in rural Missouri requires devotion, hard work and courage

by Jarrett Medlin
Firefighters Scott Campbell (left) and Roger Carter (right) of the Center City & Rural Fire Department put out a trailer of smoldering hay bales as the trailer’s owner, James Howald, looks on. The north-central Missouri fire department is typical of small, volunteer rural fire departments. Working in the 100-degree heat, firefighters wore shorts and T-shirts once the situation was under control. (fire photo by Eric Syverson.)

Firefighters are known for waiting — sitting around a fire station and listening for the sound of an alarm that will beckon them to a towering blaze.

In the northeast Missouri town of Center and other rural communities throughout the state, it rarely happens that way. Most of the time, the men and women who fight fires are at work, spraying a field with pesticide or laboring on a factory floor. Other times, they are relaxing at a barbecue or sleeping soundly in the comfort of their own beds when the pager goes off, beckoning them to an unknown and potentially deadly situation.

These local heroes often use their own vehicles and gas to answer calls. They donate hundreds of hours each year preparing, training and responding to fires. And though they are paid nothing for it, they would have it no other way.

“I wouldn't want to go to Chicago or some big city to be paid,” says Jason Liter, assistant fire chief at the Center City & Rural Fire Department in northeast Missouri. “I'm happy in a rural area.”

The Center City & Rural Fire Department consists of 14 volunteer firefighters who spend many hours training and responding to emergencies. Pictured from left: Jason Liter, Gene Calhoun, Pete Hilgenbrinck, Brooke Hilgenbrinck and Jamie Allen.

In Missouri, 90 percent of the state's fire departments rely on volunteers like Jason. In fact, of the 898 fire departments throughout the state, 614 are volunteer departments and another 197 are “combination departments,” with both volunteer and paid firefighters.

At the same time, the number of volunteers has declined nationwide during the past two decades. Since 1983, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped 10 percent, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. This trend is attributed to a number of factors, including the fact that fewer people are staying in their hometowns and employees are commuting farther to work, so they can’t answer a call as quickly.

“In a small community, without a large business base, there's just not many people around during the day,” says Jason. “Here in Center, there are about 14 firemen on the roster, but only about six to eight are really active.”

Pete Hilgenbrinck, Center’s fire chief, works as a manufacturing supervisor in Quincy, Ill., and drives an hour to and from work each day. Despite being exhausted after a long day of work and an inconvenient commute, he responds to emergency calls at night and spends many hours on paperwork and training.

Assistant fire chief Jason Liter laughs with a local citizen while helping at Center's Annual Park Day. Volunteering at local events and fundraisers is one more aspect of a volunteer firefighter's job.

“My wife has told the other guys several times, ‘If you see my husband, tell him to come home,’” he says.

Such devoted firefighters know the job requires more than a half-hearted commitment. All volunteers must complete the same rigid certification standards as career professionals. In fact, the State Fire Marshal’s Office doesn’t even differentiate between volunteers and full-time employees for Missouri’s 20,034 certified firefighters.

Besides going to fire school once per year, Center’s volunteers attend training sessions twice per month at the station. During the sessions, they review safety procedures, practice timed drills and check equipment. Last year, the small group of active volunteers logged a combined 480 hours of training, in addition to the many hours spent responding to emergency calls.

As Jason says, “There’s a lot more to it than squirting the wet stuff on the red stuff.”

He knows a volunteer firefighter’s schedule is never set in stone. Every-thing can change at the buzz of a pager or the squawk of a radio. That sound sets everything in motion.

Jason Liter steers the fire engine while informing dispatch that the Center Fire Department is doing a test drill. Monthly training keeps the firefighters prepared for actual emergencies.

When Jason’s pager or hand-held radio goes off, he responds by jumping in his truck, turning on its blue emergency light and calling other available firefighters on his way to the scene or fire station. If there aren’t enough volunteers available, he’ll alert 911 and request mutual aid from neighboring towns.

Firefighters are often the first emergency personnel on scene. As part of First Responders, a program that requires an initial 70 hours of medical training and 24 hours every three years afterward, Center’s volunteers are certified to administer CPR and extract victims from autombile accidents. Between reviving unconscious victims, helping neighboring towns and extinguishing fires, the firefighters seem to do it all.

“Basically, we’re glorified pack mules,” says Pete. “But when we come together, even as small as we are, we really put it together.”

After arriving at a fire, each of the men and women has a different responsibility. While firefighter Gene Calhoun might run the pumper, emergency medical technician and volunteer fireman Jamie Allen attends to injured victims. All egos and job titles fall to the wayside.

“Once we get there, we don’t care about titles,” says Pete. “We’re there to get the job done.

Firefighter Keith Golian hooks up a hose and turns on a fire hydrant during a timed fire drill. Such drills are designed to simulate a real fire.

Over the past five years, the firefighters’ response time and capabilities have improved drastically. Pete recalls a time not so long ago when citizens referred to Center’s department as a “foundation fire department,” meaning the firefighters often arrived so late they only saved the foundation. But the station has experienced a drastic turnaround due to vast equipment improvements — thanks largely to grants from the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and more training requirements.

“If I’ve enjoyed anything the most, I’d say it’s seeing this department come together,” says Pete. “I’d put it against any other department.”

He is quick to point out such success wouldn’t be possible without the support of his and other firefighters’ families. Their loved ones often wait at the station during training sessions, and understand when a pager goes off and they have to leave a ballgame or barbecue.

Some of the firefighters’ family members are even getting into the act. Pete’s 19-year-old daughter, Brooke, recently became a volunteer firefighter, and his teenage son, Cody, hopes to one day fight fires.

“I’d let my kids be firefighters in a heartbeat,” he says with pride. “I hope they’ll take our place someday.”

Such passion isn’t uncommon among volunteer firefighters. They understand the job is more than just helping people, attending training sessions and putting out fires.

“It becomes a part of you,” says Jason. “It really gets in your blood.”

For more information, contact your local fire station, or visit the University of Missouri Fire & Rescue Training Institute’s Web site at www.mufrti.org.

 

Rural Missouri - July 2014 issue
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