WEBSTER COUNTY - When a house is on fire, all-volunteer fire departments can struggle to bring in enough people in time. A new system of automatic mutual aid should help rural Webster County departments help each other out.
Whenever there is a structure fire, the dispatch center will now call both the nearest fire department and one other department, said Don Ashenfelter, president of the Webster County Firefighters Association.
"Right now, each department has one department set up for automatic mutual aid," said Ashenfelter, who is also a Badger firefighter. "No matter where our call, if it's a structural fire, Vincent's going to get called out at the same time as us."
Trent Farnham rushes to get his equipment on during a timed test at a recent training meeting of the Gowrie Fire Department. The firefighters were timed, then watched a video of firefighters saving a young girl from a fire and timed again. The second time they got dressed 20 seconds faster
Eventually Ashenfelter said each individual address will be entered into the computer system, and mutual aid will be called based more specifically on the fire's location. For example, the Badger fire district goes west past U.S. Highway 169, he said. A fire over there should trigger mutual aid from Clare instead of Vincent.
The automatic call leads to much quicker response times.
"I work at the Crossroads Mall," Ashenfelter said. "If we get paged to a structural fire, at minimum 10 minutes for me to get to the station. Five minutes for me to get gear on, get in the truck and get out the door. Say it takes 10 minutes to get to the scene.
"I realize at that point I need help. You've got 10 minutes for the next department to get to their station, 5 minutes for them to get gear on, and another 15 minutes to get to the fire. By the time you get enough help, we're looking at almost an hour, 55 minutes."
Gowrie Fire Chief Greg Benson summed it up.
"By the time you get there and figure out what you've got, and you call for mutual aid it's too late," he said.
Gowrie has 20 firefighters on the department, and Badger has 21, but during the day most of them are working out of town.
"With a lot of these small towns, you call in the daytime you're going to get three or four guys, and they just can't man the truck and put out a fire," Benson said.
It takes a minimum of 10 to 12 people, Ashenfelter said.
"I'd rather have a department call us right from the get-go, have them get to the scene, and say it's not that big of a deal," he said. "Rather than wait until they show up and say we've got problems."
Ashenfelter said the association has been trying to implement automatic mutual aid for some time.
"I've been pushing for this for the last 2 1/2 years," he said. "I hope see it continue to where it's standard."
Fire departments and Emergency Medical Services face the same challenges in finding enough volunteers, Benson said. More young people are moving away, and less people are willing to go through the training it takes.
"It's hard for somebody to say I'm a volunteer, but I'm going to sit through a class for 100 hours, take the skills test, take a written test, so I can do this," said Ashenfelter. "And then having to maintain 24 hours of continuing education every year."
Those are the requirements for Firefighter 1, the most basic level of training needed to be legally allowed to fight a structure fire, he said.
Benson said in Minnesota, volunteer firefighters are given pensions after they retire.
"The Iowa Fireman's Association has tried and tried for years to get that implemented in Iowa, because we think it would help our volunteer ratio and rate, to say when you retire from the fire department you get this pension," he said. "It's substantial, and it's really nice and it would help us get volunteers."
The good done
"What do I get for pay?" said Ashenfelter. "I get the calmness in myself thinking that if it's my wife or my kids or my mom or my friends in that situation, somebody is going to come help them."