While Kansas and the rest of the nation are somewhat recovering from the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, rural areas of the state have felt the sting of closed businesses and limited services provided by local governments.
Fire departments and emergency medical services (EMS) in rural Barton County have not been exempt from the pain of limited staff and funding, although much of the shortages were an issue well before the pandemic struck in 2020. While the crunch is real, fire and emergency services in the less populated segments of the county have managed to survive although, at times, by a thread. And like many rural communities, a majority of the staff are volunteers. Last year, Barton County commissioners approved a $50,000 budget increase for county fire and EMS departments but the cost to keep these departments in operation continues to rise.
According to a report by the National Rural Health Association, across the United States, about 57 million people, or 18% of the total population, call rural communities home. In Kansas, nearly 920,000 people reside in rural areas and in Barton County, more than 10,000 of the county’s 27,000 residents live in rural communities. There are 12 volunteer fire departments that serve rural Barton County. Ellinwood, Hoisington and Claflin also provide ambulance service. Because of isolation, emergency situations in a rural environment dictate timely responses from fire and EMS personnel.
A thirsty system and updated equipment
In addition to funding and staff issues, one of the challenges for some rural fire departments is working with an overtaxed water supply, said Jerry Stricker, chief of Barton County Fire District 2 out of Hoisington.
“I think that’s a problem for a lot of places and with fire services broadening over the last 20 years there’s more of a demand for water,” he said. Stricker added that a county-owned water tanker is available to the district at any time. “Recently we had a fire at the county landfill and that tanker was a huge help in controlling and putting that fire out,” Stricker said.
Another issue faced by smaller departments is providing updated equipment for volunteers.
“That’s not just a funding issue but a safety issue,” said Stricker. “We also have to ensure that we are operating within National Fire Protection Association standards, which involves keeping our personal protective equipment updated. That can raise operation costs.”
In 2018, the Barton County Commission approved the organization of a new fire district in the county. Fire District 2 consists of Albion, Eureka, North Homestead, South Homestead and Union townships, and the cities of Hoisington, Olmitz and Susank. The purpose of the district is to create a broader, more stable pool of funding by distributing operating costs equally to all townships and cities in the district.
Finding an adequate number of volunteers to serve smaller communities is another challenge rural departments are constantly up against, said Hoisington EMS Director Megan Elmore.
“Since COVID arrived, it’s been very difficult to fill the schedule with the appropriate level of staff,” Elmore said.
In October of last year, in an effort to offset a shortage of weekend emergency medical staff, the Hoisington City Council approved a financial incentive to recruit and retain volunteer emergency technicians. Adequate weekend emergency staffing has been an issue for the city.
“We have had a few of our technicians who have chosen to accept that contract and that has helped to provide some relief for some of our other technicians who are very dedicated and have been on call during weekends,” said Elmore. “It gives those weekend warriors some time off, which is needed.”
Help from townships, fundraisers and grants
Ellinwood’s fire department serves two townships, Lakin to the north and Comanche in the south, and operates on a budget of $60,000 a year.
“That’s not a huge budget but both of the townships we serve pay a third of that for fire protection,” said Ellinwood Fire Chief and City Administrator Chris Komarek. “We have a great working relationship with those townships and that benefits Ellinwood as well.” He added that other sources of funding come through community-wide fundraisers and grants. “Every year we host the duck race here in Ellinwood, which raises several thousand dollars that we put toward specialized fire equipment,” Komarek said. “That money raised also assists with fire prevention programs and awareness.”
One of the bigger sources of funding for the Ellinwood Fire Department is the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG), which was established in 2001 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The AFG assists firefighters and other first responders in obtaining critically needed equipment, protective gear, emergency vehicles, training and other resources necessary for protecting the public and emergency personnel from fire and related hazards.
“It’s not an easy grant to get,” said Komarek. “But if you are awarded that funding, the benefits can be pretty substantial.” Since its inception, the AFG has awarded $500,000 to the Ellinwood Fire Department. “We were able to purchase a large tanker back in 2008 through money from that grant and also new bunker gear in 2013,” Komarek said. He noted that other grants utilized by Ellinwood come from the Kansas Forrest Service.
Dual roles and everyone working together
Many rural communities have emergency personnel who serve as both firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs). “Most of our firefighters are either EMTs or paramedics and/or respond to assist with EMS calls daily,” said Claflin Fire Chief Doug Hubbard. Hubbard said City of Claflin public works personnel are also part of local emergency crews and have been for decades.
“Without these people who are in town during the daytime hours while others are working a job or operating a business, etc., we would be short of help,” he said. Hubbard added that his department is very fortunate in Barton County in that all the fire and EMS departments work and train together regularly.
“We have mutual aid agreements between all of us and actually with neighboring counties and we go help our neighbors quite often,” he said. Hubbard said that as the volunteer situation has changed over the past years, mutual aid has been a lifeline during emergency situations. “Our fire departments meet quarterly and our EMS departments meet monthly to keep up with current events and to improve our responses within our area and with other departments,” he said.