One is a tiny number, right? Like when we hear fire claimed “only one” structure in our county last year, or that “just one” person had to be extricated from a car wreck. In those terms, things don’t sound all that bad.
But what if it was YOUR structure that burned to the ground, or YOUR loved one who was trapped in a vehicle?
Recently, a local family was “the one.” They woke to discover their greenhouse – which contributes a significant part of their livelihood – was on fire. If that wasn’t enough, the building also housed an equipment shed and working mechanic shop, including welding gases, and there were fuel tanks along an outside wall.
Our local volunteer fire department turned out in force, working from a safe distance to protect a calving barn and three homes that are on the property. The welding gases and fuel tanks made it too dangerous to get anywhere near the burning building.
Even though the greenhouse was a total loss, a family member told us, “If the firefighters hadn’t been there, it all would have burned.” They could have lost everything.
Emergency services aren’t something we should take for granted, but we do. When we call 911, we expect whoever is needed to show up and take care of our problem.
But what if they didn’t? What if the firefighters HADN’T been there to protect what was left of this family’s operation, not to mention their homes?
Last year, rural firefighters from across North America came together to talk about how hard it is to keep their doors open. In “larger” rural communities, those with 5,000-9,999 people, almost 45 percent of fire departments are all volunteer. That percentage goes up to 74 percent in communities with 2,500-4,999 people, and in tiny counties like ours, with populations less than 2,500, nearly 93 percent of fire departments rely fully on volunteers.
Just because there are fewer people in rural communities doesn’t mean there are fewer fires. When people are more spread out, the proportion actually rises. In big cities, where there are a million or more people, there are only 3.1 fires per 1,000 people, with a national average of 4.5. Which means something has to bring that national average up.
That something is those of us who live rural: there are 10.8 – yes, more than double the national average — fires per 1,000 people in communities that have fewer than 2,500 people. Is that an eye-opener, or what?
The next question is, how are we going to keep the doors open at our rural fire departments, to make sure there’s a crew there to answer the call? Rural fire volunteers are aging – 42 percent have been with their departments for more than 10 years, and many a lot longer than that. And fewer people are stepping up to fill their shoes.
We get it. It’s hard to work full time, raise a family, take care of a house and yard, and try to get in some downtime when we can.
But if we don’t – if YOU don’t – who will?
Put away the “why nots” and consider the reasons “why to.” Volunteer fire departments need all kinds of volunteers – they need firefighters, drivers, and people to haul water, direct traffic over the radio, feed crews on fire lines, and help with all the details that keep the department running. And most departments provide all the needed training and equipment.
How healthy is your local volunteer fire department? What do they need? And how will you say “yes”?
*originally appeared in our AgWeek column June 2018