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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Volunteers face the fires in townships

April 6, 2001

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— In 1983, Lecompton Township resident Jeff Goodrich watched as his friends pulled a fire truck to the scene of a nearby fire. They hadn't been able to get the truck started.

At the time, Goodrich was running the truck fleet at All Star Dairy in Lawrence and decided to make use of his mechanical abilities to help out.

Kanwaka Fire Department Volunteers Bob Rombach, left, and Fire
Chief Chris Lesser survey the scene during a recent call for a
standby unit at a medical helicopter landing in western Douglas
County. Township fire departments rely almost completely on
volunteers to provide protection in the county.

Kanwaka Fire Department Volunteers Bob Rombach, left, and Fire Chief Chris Lesser survey the scene during a recent call for a standby unit at a medical helicopter landing in western Douglas County. Township fire departments rely almost completely on volunteers to provide protection in the county.

"I thought, that's something that I need to do," Goodrich said. "One thing led to another and I started taking care of the (fire) trucks."

Now, 18 years later, Goodrich also volunteers as one of the township's firefighters in addition to his full-time night job. Firefighting isn't always easy and the volunteer duties eat up his spare time.

"When you live out here, you kind of get involved in a lot of things," he said. "Most of the people we run calls for out here, we know. If it wasn't us doing it, there wouldn't be anyone else doing it."

Although the county population is growing rapidly as more people move away from the city, firefighting in rural areas remains the work of volunteers.

But finding people like Goodrich who want to go into burning buildings for free isn't easy, said Wakarusa Township Fire Chief Rod Brown.

"People are busy today and don't have time to volunteer services like they used to," he said.

Short crews, high rates

While volunteer fire squads struggle to maintain full crews, homeowners struggle with higher premiums for insurance coverage.

Based on evaluations of equipment, training and water availability, all fire departments periodically are evaluated by the Insurance Services Office Commercial Risk Services Inc., a private, nonprofit organization. After evaluation, the departments are ranked on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 signifying the best-prepared department.

Areas covered by the professional Lawrence fire department have a ranking of 2.

In the townships, within five miles of a fire station, Risk Services usually gives departments a rating of 9. But the rankings in all Douglas County townships have been at 9 or 10 for as long as any fire chief can recall.

Though insurance rates vary among insurance companies, Dennis Garrison, a local State Farm Insurance agent, gave an example of how rates varied between the city and the townships.

To insure a new $100,000 home with a $500 deductible in Lawrence would cost $411 per year, he said. To insure the same house in a class 9 district would cost $555. That would soar to $739 in a class 10 district.

Better planning needed?

To improve to an 8 ranking from a 9 in Kanwaka Township would require a better supply of water, such as from a system of fire hydrants, Fire Chief Chris Lesser said.

"When they build new subdivisions in the county, there ought to be some provision required for a water system," he said.

To achieve the lower ranking, Lesser said, the department would need a minimum water flow of 250 gallons per minute for two hours, or have a cistern built into a subdivision that carries at least 30,000 gallons of water.

"We have the equipment necessary to pump the water, but we don't have the water source to do it," he said.

But even if the township departments have the equipment and can get the water, one important link still may be missing: the volunteers.

Recruiting and keeping volunteers is an increasing challenge, fire chiefs say. Area volunteer fire departments range in size from 13 to 25 members.

In Lecompton Township, the department averages more than 110 calls per year. Though the volunteers might go for a week without any calls disrupting their lives, there could be five calls the next week.

Helping neighbors

Despite the lack of pay, the dangerous work and the loss of spare time, Goodrich said the reason people volunteer is "out of the goodness of your heart."

And if a volunteer department is low on manpower or equipment, they call for mutual aid from nearby fire departments.

"Everyone is real good about mutual aid," said Lecompton Fire Chief LeRoy Boucher, who has been a firefighter for nearly 30 years. "You just kind of rely on your next-door neighbor and it works out very well."

To retain members, the townships offer various incentives, including training sessions.

In Kanwaka Township, Lesser sets up an annual firefighter recognition night, awards service pins and holds get-togethers for the families. In Wakarusa, Brown said, the township provides life insurance coverage and gives adequate training, especially if a volunteer wants to pursue a career in firefighting.

"I consider it a feather in my cap if I can help make a volunteer marketable," Brown said.

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