It takes a special kind of person to voluntarily put himself or herself in harm’s way. Firefighters across the nation willingly pursue dangerous, life-threatening situations from which the average person flees.
The reason they do this comes down to one simple answer: “Every firefighter wants to save lives that are in danger,” says Fire Chief Raymond Martin. “Every ounce of training really boils down to that one simple thing.”
Martin is the fire chief of the Oldtown Fire Department in Greenup County. Oldtown is a volunteer fire department that serves a rural area, and the challenges of that service include not only those inherent with any fire department on a state and national level, but also those difficulties and obstacles unique to rural areas.
Kentucky has 810 fire departments statewide, and of those 759 are volunteer, according to the Kentucky Fire Commission.
Though less populated, rural areas are typically larger than the physical distance for which individual urban departments are responsible. And much of that coverage, Martin points out, has limited access on roads that are much narrower than city streets.
“Water is the main issue,” Martin says. “There are fewer hydrants, or none, once you leave the main roads.” Rural departments typically operate on secondary and tertiary roads, or access roads that in rural areas can be in excess of a mile in length, many of them unpaved and barely able to accommodate a fire truck. Martin says this requires the fire department to depend on the water that each tanker can haul, or on a rare occasion to find a natural supply such as creeks and streams. Neighboring departments, who share similar challenges, make themselves available to assist with backup tankers, but nearly all rural firefighters tell stories of breaking ice on creeks to access water during winter fires.
“Another issue is that we all have (other) jobs,” Martin says. “That’s why it is so important to have everyone in the department trained in as many areas as possible. Any of us in the department might be an hour away when a fire breaks out, so we need people available to drive the trucks and fight the fires at any hour of the day or night.”
Mutual aid departments are a huge support, according to Martin. “You never really have enough help. A large fire might take three or more departments to effectively fight—even if everyone in the department would respond at once. And the support of other departments is invaluable.”
The theme of mutual support includes not only other rural departments, but many urban fire departments as well. Martin stresses that, at need, all firefighters do their best to help combat fires and save lives. “All the neighboring urban fire departments are really good about bringing us what we need when we need it. If we call them they always respond,” notes Load Fire Department Fire Chief Garth Wireman.
The cohesion of rural departments, as well as their urban counterparts, and the willingness to work together for the common goal of keeping their friends and neighbors safe show in many ways. One of the more obvious is in how training is administered. Martin himself is a trainer. He and other trainers travel between departments to facilitate each department having trained volunteers. It is common for trainees from six or more different departments to be present at any department-hosted training session. Martin might be training in Boyd County, or other trainers, such as Harold Holley, may be training at a Greenup County fire department.
Holley, an instructor out of Area 10 for the State Fire Commission, performs 30 to 40 training sessions a year for fire departments and industrial settings. Major challenges to rural firefighters, Holley says, include the gathering of needed equipment and the safety issues with chemical exposure when responding. Holley has extensive training credentials, including hazardous materials training (hazmat). He trains firefighters how to protect themselves when responding to fires involving chemicals and the growing danger of meth labs. Rural areas are especially dangerous because the activity is easier to hide, Holley says. “We need to train our people how to be safe while they are saving the lives of others.”
Paying for rural fire departments
Finances for rural fire departments can be more problematic than their urban counterparts as well, as Wireman of Load Fire Department points out. “Everyone in the individual fire district pays taxes. For us, the Sherriff’s Department collects those then writes us a check. That’s the main way that we get our money.”
Rural areas typically have fewer people, therefore fewer tax payers than urban areas, and this equates to less money for rural departments to operate.
Both Wireman and Martin say that money can be and is supplemented by money from the State Fire Commission and through state and federal grants. But in the instance of grants, that money is not guaranteed and can only be added into their budgets after it has been awarded.
Fire departments support one another with manpower and in many other ways, such as the case of Load Fire Department’s “new” rescue truck. “The Russell Fire Department was nice enough to sell us a rescue truck for $1.00,” Wireman says. “This will allow us to better organize equipment and free up space on the engine.” This will make it easier to access and help firefighters do a more effective job keeping the community safe.
Equipment needed to save lives
Rural fire departments are typically the first agency on the scene of any emergency and use a wide variety of tools for rescue and first aid. This includes vehicles that can exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase and an ongoing expense to maintain.
Duayne King of Oldtown Fire Department breaks down the expense of the gear each firefighter needs: “It costs thousands of dollars to equip each firefighter,” King says. “The bunker coat alone is over $900, and the bunker pants are over $750.” Boots, helmet, and other basic necessities for each firefighter drive that cost upward. And an SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) that each individual must have to fight a fire can cost thousands.
Other equipment includes an apparatus that detects gases and thermal imaging cameras that aid in fire detection. The fire department in Load has two of the thermal imaging cameras, the combined cost of which Fire Chief Garth Wireman puts at approximately $10,000. The cameras are invaluable on structure fires because they alert firefighters to the presence of hidden fires inside walls and attics that may not be visible by other means.
Another important piece of equipment in the fire department’s arsenal is the automated external defibrillator, or AED. Wireman stresses the importance of the AED as a first-response tool for two main reasons. The first is that most firefighters are not trained EMTs; they are trained in first aid and CPR, but not as medical technicians. The second reason the AED is so valuable is that the machine itself can diagnose a potential heart attack victim, and will not operate if defibrillation is not necessary. “The machine is easy to use,” Wireman says. “It saves lives when needed, but it can’t be used when it’s not needed.”
A well-equipped fire department also includes the obvious and the not so obvious tools of a trade based on saving lives. Hoses of various diameters and lengths must be maintained and inspected at regular intervals. Pry bars designed to spread twisted metal are needed, and spiked attachments to pierce walls and spray water into a burning space are regularly needed. Metal and wood saws are required to rescue occupants of wrecked vehicles and structures alike, and additional equipment must be available to neutralize the toxins and chemicals firefighters come in contact with on a regular basis.
“A good pair of wire cutters that we use all of the time can cost over $50,” King says. “But we find a way to pay for all of it, because our communities are worth it.”
Fire station is center of community support
“Historically, pie socials were a way for young people to meet,” says George Easterling of Oldtown Fire Department in Greenup County. “All of the young women in a community would bake their best goods and then the young men would bid on them, and the ones that won would get to eat the pie with the girl who baked it.”
Easterling has been with the Oldtown Fire Department from the beginning when it was founded in 1983. The community that the rural fire department serves came together before the first station house was erected; and the Ladies Auxiliary, comprised of the wives, mothers, and sisters of the firefighters, has proven to be a key system of support throughout the years. Also, typical of rural life where everyone shares in the work and rewards, Oldtown has boasted numerous female auxiliary members who were also firefighters throughout its more than 30-year history as well.
Rural fire departments typically serve as a hub of activity in the community. Most fire stations’ meeting halls double as community buildings, which local residents are encouraged to rent for a nominal fee to hold various events such as birthday parties, club meetings, and even wedding receptions. Any fees charged are usually no more than what would be necessary to cover cleaning supplies or basic upkeep. Events that are held by the auxiliary are a different story, however; there are no fees, but residents go above and beyond to spend as much money as possible.
According to Auxiliary President Ruby Dickison, the pie socials and turkey dinners are only part of what the auxiliary does. There are numerous other fund-raisers throughout the year, such as trap shoots and other luncheons and dinners. The auxiliary’s efforts support not only the fire department, but the community as a whole. “If someone in the community passes away then we have a dinner for the family,” Dickison says. “During times of community emergency, such as flooding or disasters such as the bad ice storm several years back, then we try to help any way that we are able.”
But the pie social is truly an event, Dickison says. “Everyone in the community bakes their best cakes and pies,” she says. “And then everyone tries to outbid each other to get the best ones.” Candy, Dickison says, isn’t left out either. Homemade candy, cookies, and every baked good imaginable are available to be auctioned off at the pie social. “A pan of Bessie’s (Bessie Felty, the vice president) candy will easily go for over $100.”
“We’ve had some cakes go for over $300 or even $400,” Marie Porter, the auxiliary secretary, adds. “People really want to be the one to win.”
“It’s the support of the community that makes that happen,” Dickison says. “They have fun and bid against each other, and a lot of times they really don’t care how much they spend because they know it’s all going right back into the community.”
Groups and organizations like the Oldtown Auxiliary are more than necessary to the communities of which they are a part. Their support of the fire departments with which they are associated is vital in providing financing to purchase needed equipment and even improvements and additions to the station houses themselves. “The floor we are standing on (of the meeting hall) was paid for by the Auxiliary,” Easterling says. “All of this used to be gravel, and they paid for the concrete.”
Easterling’s (and the entire department’s) appreciation for the club and the community is justified. The efforts of the group helped to finish the meeting hall itself and more other things, he says. It is a good example of how rural communities work together, Easterling says.
The pie social is held each spring in April (this year it is April 12), though the actual date fluctuates somewhat. “It’s a happy event,” Dickison says. “Winter is over and all the farmers get together and discuss the crops they are going to plant for the coming year. And they bid on pies, cakes, and candy—it’s like a contest, because they see how high they can drive the price up,” Dickison laughs.
The Auxiliary plans to continue the yearly events that have been going on for more than 30 years to benefit the fire department and the community at large. And by all indications the community looks forward to the gatherings that have become a welcome tradition of help and support.
America as a country has often been associated with wholesome things such as apple pie; but in communities like Oldtown, the hands and hearts that make the pies are truly what make the communities what they are.