“YOU CANNOT ESCAPE THE RESPONSIBILITY OF
TOMORROW BY EVADING IT TODAY.”
We have witnessed the catastrophe of wildfire last year and now the destruction and magnitude has exceeded the Anderson Creek Fire in four states in one week. The loss of life, livestock, wildlife, structures, and infrastructure brings solidly to home the potential that wildfire has. And this could be just the beginning.
Have we learned anything from all this? Maybe. There are real problems that have been given a lot of lip service to from officials, agencies, experts, and others that may soon prove that we have not really learned very much. What is done will tell the tale if we are to take responsibility for many truths that so many wish to ignore. And the reasons are many and varied. And why issues are only discussed and not much done about solutions.
You should be aware that 80% of the firefighters in Kansas, and roughly the same percentage nationwide, are volunteer. What is the demographic of the make up of the fire service? As with the demographics of the rural community the numbers are getting smaller. And the age is getting higher. The reasons are economic in nature.
As the loss of young people in rural areas occur the result is fewer young people that step into positions in the fire service. The same is true in EMS. More than one community has now lost their ambulance service due to lack of manpower. Fire is even more critical since the requirements for fighting large fires are so labor intensive.
The other critical factor is that as the age goes up so does the health of the personnel going down. In one very tiny town not far from where I live the nearest fire truck is at least 20 to 30 minutes away. In this spot there was an ancient Jeep pickup set up as a fire truck that was the first response vehicle in the community. Since there were only seven people living there it was a real problem. One of the men had open heart surgery and was banned from participating. Another had heart trouble and if a fire call came in he would drive the truck out of the station and set by the county highway. There he would wait until a local cowboy passing by could be hailed down to go with the truck and the driver to the fire. It has been a while since I visited that little town. The fire truck may be gone by now or setting with no one to take it out.
The National Fire Protection Association which sets standards for the fire service is back in Washington and yet many of the procedures and practices that many departments use on a practical basis all the time are actually illegal. Yet where are the representatives and the ‘experts’ who can address the issues of Kansas and other rural areas?
Even though Kansas has several manufacturers of fire equipment, of which I consider some of the best quality available, much of it is not affordable for many of the departments who need it the most. The standards of the NFPA as well as the standards of structure equipment for large cities are all but unaffordable for many small rural communities driving the costs way up.
Another factor is an elected official who puts the safety of the citizens on a low priority since those fire trucks set in the station most of the time. And there are hundreds of ways to spend tax money other than for updated equipment for the fire department.
Every day I read the news on my fire pages of another firefighter who died on the scene, going home from the scene, or at the station from everything from strokes, heart attacks, and other life threatening conditions which has been deemed as a direct result of doing the job. We have been extremely fortunate in the last two years at the major wildfires to not have lost the life of any firefighters.
The task forces that come together to assist communities from all around the state prove that everyone is willing to stand side by side regardless of politics or anything else. The communities come forward and do whatever they can to help and show appreciation for all the firefighters who come dropping everything, including their own income, to help.
Why can’t those of us from the fire service be able to join with officials, manufacturers, planners, and technologists and start to truly address the needs of our rural fire service and our small towns?
Why can’t the legislature take the myriad of laws and regulations concerning organizing, funding, and administration of the fire service and bring them into the 21st Century? Reflect the needs of protecting the people and the ones who do the protecting. Laws written in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s need to be re-examined, codified, and modernized to reflect the realities of the fire service today.
next time: Technology, funding, and ideas.