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Special Report: Cause For Alarm - KOAM TV 7

Special Report: Cause For Alarm

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A tremendous amount of our public safety is actually dependent on the work of volunteers. Specifically, firefighters. Only 6% of firefighters in Kansas are full time, career firefighters. Most battle blazes, cover car crashes, and save lives without a single dollar for their work.  

Any given day or time, if you visit the Baker Township Fire department in Crawford County, KS, it’s unlikely you will find anyone there ready to fight a fire. It’s roughly 30 volunteers are at home or work. But at any time could expect a call.

“We get out of bed at night. We have people that leave their jobs during the day. It could happen right now, it just depends what you're doing at the time,” Baker Township Fire Chief Mike Ryan said.

79.5% of all firefighters in Kansas are volunteers.

“It's a much tougher job than when I started,” Ryan said. “We used to 50 calls a year and now we maybe go to 200. And I don't know how we're going to maintain that with volunteers."

The Baker Township is one of 16 volunteer departments in Crawford County. The Pittsburg Fire Department is the only career department in the county.

“We get paid ten dollars a call. We can be there for 3 hours and still get ten dollars. We can be there for 10 minutes and get 10 dollars,” firefighter Chad Prewitt said when asked about volunteer compensation.

Prewitt is in the middle of a 24-hour shift at the pittsburg fire department. When he’s off work, he’s on call. For Baker Township.  

“[At Pittsburg Fire Department] you know how many people you're gonna have at any given time,” Prewitt said. “On the volunteer side of it, you don't know if you're gonna have four people, five people, or even 10 people."

Prewitt and other volunteers are among a shrinking group. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, volunteers decreased 20% from 1984 to 2014.

While the number of volunteer firefighters is declining, their age is increasing. Anywhere from 40 to 50% of volunteers are 50 years or older, across the U.S.

“You can't get kids to devote their time for free anymore. So kind of us old people are the last of a dieing breed,” Arma Fire Chief Mike McLeod said. At one point, Arma had as few as 10 volunteer firefighters. He’s had to recruit outside the district to stay fully staffed.

“We got a lot of older guys who just don't have the time to show up any more,” McLeod said. “And most of the older guys are getting a little bit hard of getting around."

The department uses it’s facility as a recruiting tool. Arma now has a  volunteer living on-site, and pays $30cc to volunteers who stay overnight.

Stephen Goldschmidt is the live-in firefighter, spending full-time hours volunteering.

“The main requirement is 40 hours a week,” Goldschmidt said. “Or at least be here through the day or night."

While the program is seeing results, Chief McLeod believes the volunteer model may not be something rural departments can rely on in 20, 30 years.

And at Baker Township, Chief Ryan says despite shrinking recruits, for most of these communities paying firefighters doesn’t seem like an option.

“The money's just not there. We operate off a mil levy. so we're operating off a budget that we know we can't increase,” Ryan said.

“Right now it costs about $2,500 just to equip a firefighter,” McLeod said. “Not including all the equipment that me have to have. There is so much that taxpayers don't realize what it takes to actually run a fire department."

“Everything we do; fuel, everything, costs more,” Ryan said. “It's just a real tough issue right now."

To make up for recruiting, every volunteer station in Southeast Kansas has mutual aid agreements to help surrounding volunteer departments. There are hybrid volunteer departments in Southeast Kansas, paying a full time or several part time firefighters to mix in the rotation. Some chiefs we talked to said the hybrid model say be something cities and counties will need to consider moving towards.

The National reliance on volunteers isn’t much better. 71% of firefighters across the U.S. are volunteers. And besides the actual workload of firefighting, volunteers still go through hours of training.

Tim Spears
FOX 14 News Anchor, Reporter

In September 2014, Tim Spears joined KOAM as a Reporter. Tim previously worked at 95.1FM (Mike FM) and was a Sports Producer at PSU. Young Timothy was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and was raised in Kansas City, MO area.

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Tim Spears:
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