County’s 14 volunteer fire departments need help, have jobs for almost everyone
Editor’s note: This is the second story in a two-part series by Times writers Jessi Dreckman and Sue Ann Jones reporting on the status of Ozark County’s volunteer fire departments. The first part of the series, profiling the Bakersfield, Brixey-Rockbridge, Caulfield, Cloud 9, Dora and Gainesville VFDs, was published in last week’s Times. A correction about last week’s Cloud 9 information is on page 5.
Let’s say you’re driving an Ozark County roadway when a deer darts out of the woods, onto the highway. Swerving to miss it, you veer over the center line, directly into the path of an oncoming farm truck.
People are trapped, hurt, bleeding, struggling to breathe. Maybe your kids are with you, screaming in fear and pain. Your worst nightmare is threatening to come true.
Somehow someone calls 911, and soon professional emergency personnel – Ozark County Ambulance, Ozark County Sheriff’s deputies, a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper – are dispatched to help you.
But those professionals may be more than 20 miles away. Most likely, the first rescuer’s face you see through the broken windshield and crumpled metal will be a volunteer firefighter or first responder from one of the 14 volunteer fire departments that serve Ozark County.
You can be assured those people would have other things to do that day – or night. They might be working at their jobs or celebrating a child’s birthday party or sharing a meal with friends they haven’t seen in years. They might be mowing the yard or planting their garden. Or sleeping. But whatever it was, they stopped what they were doing and rushed to help you.
Most of Ozark County’s volunteer firefighters and first responders have trained extensively to learn the best way to keep you alive until professional medical responders take over. (For example, Gainesville VFD is hosting a two-night vehicle-firefighting workshop for firefighters at 6 p.m. next Monday and Tuesday.)
This scene is a possibility anywhere in Ozark County. While most residents think of the county’s volunteer fire departments as mostly responding to fires, the fact is, they respond to a wide variety of other emergency events, as well – from medical calls and vehicle accidents to search-and-rescue events and structure or brush fires.
Just look at each week’s sheriff’s report in the Ozark County Times, and you’ll see examples of the many types of calls volunteer fire departments respond to.
An example of this wide variety of responses occurred last week, when West Plains fisherman Mike Meidell launched his boat on Norfork Lake at Udall and didn’t return. Volunteers from Tecumseh, Bakersfield, Lick Creek and Caney Mountain VFDs assisted Ozark County Sheriff Darrin Reed and his deputies, and MSHP troopers, in searching for Meidell over the weekend. On Monday, March 4, they helped retrieve Meidell’s body from a remote site on Bryant Creek.
Every resident of Ozark County is potentially one accident, one fire, one frightening medical situation or other life-threatening incident away from needing a volunteer firefighter or first responder.
And every resident of Ozark County is a potential member, volunteer or financial supporter of the department where he or she lives. Wherever you live or own property in Ozark County, a volunteer fire department needs your help.
More volunteers needed for a wide variety of jobs
All 14 of the volunteer fire departments that serve Ozark County say they need more volunteers, more dues-paying members and additional financial support. Every department contacted by the Times said it can use volunteers of all abilities – not only those who are willing and able to learn how to fight fires and serve as medical first responders but also what Theodosia Area VFD chief John Lubbers called “backseat people”: traffic flaggers, equipment operators, vehicle drivers, hose minders, clean-up crew members and support personnel who bring coffee or water and sandwiches to fire, search or accident scenes when needed.
“There’s never enough help,” said Caney Mountain VFD chief Bob Peat. “And even if we had enough people in the department, everyone has a life. So they may be working somewhere, or shopping in Springfield, or at a doctor’s appointment in West Plains when a call comes in. If there’s a structure fire, sometimes we have to have two or three other departments come and help us.”
The fire departments also need volunteers who can serve as board members and fundraiser helpers.
While they’re all looking for more volunteers, the fire chiefs told the Times what they really need is dependable volunteers – people who will show up when needed, in whatever capacity they’ve agreed to serve. The chiefs all said they wanted to talk with would-be volunteers and get to know them before accepting the newcomers into the department as firefighters and first responders.
One fire chief said he’d heard of people volunteering just to get the insurance coverage a department offered, “but then they never showed up when there was a fire.” Those kinds of volunteers aren’t needed, he said.
Volunteers who are accepted are given gear and training during departmental meetings. Each department has its own ways of introducing new volunteers into its ranks. Some say new trainees will be invited to accompany senior firefighters to fire and accident scenes immediately, watching from a distance “but never left alone,” one chief said. Others say some basic training at the firehouse must be completed first. All departments encourage their volunteers to “get all the training they can,” a chief said.
Some fire chiefs said they might consider conducting brief background checks on new volunteers. Some departments accept junior firefighters as young as 15.
The importance of dues and fundraisers
All of the county’s volunteer fire departments need residents’ financial support. Membership dues range from $35 to $65 per year for a household, and dues-paying members are essential to keep the departments operating.
Volunteers have a hard time understanding why some residents refuse to pay the dues. One fire chief told the Times his department turned out for a structure fire at a non-member’s home. Afterward, the department sent the homeowner a bill – not for the hundreds of dollars state law says the department can legally charge a non-member, but for a two-year VFD membership, which totaled less than $100. “And they wouldn’t pay it, even after we had a benefit for them at the firehouse,” he said.
Fuel for fire department vehicles is a major expense. Many of the rural departments may have a 30-mile round trip just to fill their trucks with gasoline. Most firehouses have propane heat, another expense, plus electricity bills and insurance premiums to pay. Some well-supported departments manage to maintain a healthy budget. For other departments, where support isn’t as strong, finances are a major concern.
Pontiac /Price Place VFD is thought to have the highest percentage of paid memberships. Of the 270 households in the PPPVFD district, fewer than 12 are not members.
Former Pontiac/Price Place VFD chief Al Davidson said the PPPVFD works hard to convince residents to pay their dues. Bills are sent out each year to all households in the PPPVFD district, and if dues are unpaid after 30 days, a reminder postcard is sent out. The postcard says, “Members’ dues provide most of our operating expenses and allow us to ensure your fire protection and medical first responder services remain in effect,” according to Davidson.
When someone’s PPPVFD dues remain unpaid after 60 days, the department sends the resident another letter that says, in effect, “You are no longer a member in good standing,” adding that the resident is “no longer eligible to receive services unless a life is in danger.”
Davidson said the letter tells the non-paying resident, “We may respond to an emergency on your property, but unless a life is in danger, our primary concern will be to protect the property of neighbors who are dues-paying members.”
He added, “We’re basically saying we’re not going to risk our lives to protect your property if you won’t pay your dues.”
Davidson believes PPPVFD has the highest membership rate – 93 percent – of any of Ozark County’s dues-supported districts. “With our thanks to the people who pay their dues,” he added.
In addition to billing residents for annual dues, most departments hold fundraisers throughout the year. And, of course, all departments welcome tax-deductible cash donations.
They also appreciate when the residents of their district express thanks for the work the volunteers do.
Fire department information
Last week’s Times shared information about six of Ozark County’s fire departments: Bakersfield, Brixey-Rockbridge, Caulfield, Cloud 9, Dora and Gainesville. Information about the other eight departments is lissted below. Membership numbers are estimates, in most cases. All the departments hope more residents will consider stepping up to serve with them or support them financially in the work they do for their neighbors.
Caney Mountain VFD
Fire chief: Bob Peat
Roster: 9, including 6 first responders
Members: About 160. The district has an estimated 310 buildings
Annual dues: $45
For more information: Contact CMVFD board member Shirrley Williams, 417-712-1657. Or attend a meeting at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at the fire house on County Road 103 just off Highway 181.
Chief’s comments: The Peat family has been involved with CMVFD since 2003, when former chief Ken Cook called and said, “This department’s in trouble; we need people,” current chief Bob Peat recalled. “We knew nothing back then, but we’ve learned.” The Peats and the other volunteers in the department serve “because somebody has to do it,” he said. “It’s helping our community.” Peat would like to see more residents help the department – by volunteering, by paying membership dues and by offering other financial support. “A lot of people don’t realize what it takes just to keep these trucks running,” he said.
Pontiac / Price Place VFD
Fire chief: Art Streigle
Roster: 21, including 11 first responders, traffic-control personnel and a driver / first responder.
Members: About 260 out of 270 total households in the district
Annual dues: $60 per household / $125 per business
For more information: Contact Streigle at 417-989-0105. “We’ll meet, and I’ll explain how things work. Anyone who can help, can help,” he said.
Former chief’s comments: Former PPPVFD chief Al Davidson told the Times that the district has an ISO rating of 5, “and nobody else in Ozark County has a rating like that.” ISO ratings, based on several factors, are used by most insurance companies to set premium rates. Like all the other rural Ozark County fire districts, the PPPVFD district has no fire hydrants. “We get water from [Bull Shoals] lake,” Davidson said. About 12 years ago, the department was able to raise $10,000 to buy a huge refurbished diesel pump that can fill a 5,000-gallon tanker in two minutes, Davidson said, and that pump is one of the reasons why PPPVFD has the best ISO rating in the county. Dues and fundraising efforts are necessary to keep the pump and the department’s other equipment in good working order, something that’s required in order to keep the ISO 5 rating.
Fire chief: Sam Gunter
Roster: 16. All are firefighters, and six of the firefighters are also first responders.
Members: About 325. Most of them are in Howell County.
Annual dues: $40
For more information: Call the Pottersville VFD cell phone, 417-256-4848, and leave a message. Or attend a training night at 7 p.m. on the first and third Monday of each month.
Chief’s comments: The Pottersville department, based in Howell County but extending into a small section of Ozark County, responds to an Ozark County call “about once a month,” Gunter said. Volunteers of all abilities are needed. “As long as they’re in healthy condition, there’s something they can do,” he said. Newcomers to the department go through an application process, attend training nights and complete about a six-week probation period. The department is most frequently dispatched for medical calls and brush fires, Gunter said.
Fire chief: Nathanael Winrod
Roster: About 13 firefighters, including 7 first responders
Annual dues: $45 and up, depending on number of properties owned and whether they’re residential or commercial
For more information: Message the TVFD via its Facebook page (search for “Tecumseh Volunteer Fire Department”) or call J.B. Duke at 417-293-1819 or Caroline Israel at 417-284-1606
Chief’s comments: “We can always use more volunteers,” said Winrod. “In general, I’d like to see new volunteers respond to our monthly meetings and training sessions for six months or so. Then, when I feel comfortable that they’re serious about it, I’ll start calling them when we get a call, trying to get them to show up. I want to know them well, and then we’ll give them turnout gear and a pager radio.” Winrod, a co-owner of Winrod Construction, said that as a business owner he’s able to “drop what I’m doing, depending on where we’re working,” to respond to calls. Assistant chief J. B. Duke, owner of Duke’s Truck Repair and Towing, does the same. “So, most of the time the department has been blessed that we can usually respond with five to seven for fires and one to four for medical calls. It’s rare where we have a call and no one’s available,” he said.
Theodosia Area VFD
Fire chief: John Lubbers
Medical EMS director: Allen Edgington
Roster: About 12
Members: About 700
Annual dues: $65 per household the first year, $55 subsequent years. More for businesses.
For more information: Contact Lubbers, 273-4323
Chief’s comments: In addition to its main firehouse on Highway 160 in Theodosia, TAVFD has vehicles in firehouses in Isabella, Ocie and on NN Highway. “We need firefighters, first responders, people who will help,” Lubbers said. He knows that the department’s first responders save people – as they did last month when they helped rescue stranded, hypothermic passengers of a vehicle that floated off Haskins Ford in high water. “I wish we could save more houses,” he said. “We help as much as we can – and try to keep the fires small and contained.” One of the department’s successful saves came a few years ago when a fire broke out in an interior wall of a $300,000 to $400,000 home. “We went over there and put it out. That felt pretty good,” Lubbers said. Many of the homes in the TAVFD district are second homes owned by part-time residents who enjoy nearby Bull Shoals Lake. “Practically all of the people who have summer homes are dues-paying members. But there are a lot of people who live here full-time and are not members,” he said.
Fire chief: Wade Turner
Members: About 150
Annual dues: $35
For more information: Call board president Larry Tucker, 417-527-1117
Board president’s comments: Board president Larry Tucker said Thornfield VFD has “a unique system. We don’t pay much attention to who the chief is. Whoever gets there first is in charge of the fire,” he said. “It’s pretty community oriented.” When the department is paged out to a brush or structure fire, word gets around, Tucker said, and area residents who aren’t on the TVFD roster show up to help. Board members and those on the roster are mostly retirees, he said, so some of them are usually available to respond. The recent closing of the Heriford Store in Thornfield was “a double whammy” for the fire department, Tucker said, because store owner Juanita Heriford helped the department by collecting residents’ dues and passing along information between the department and those who had questions or were interested in volunteering. The second “whammy” was losing the store as a source of vehicle fuel. Now the TVFD vehicles must drive to Theodosia, Ava or Gainesville to fill up “and by the time you drive the big truck back home, the tank is half empty,” Tucker said. The department is looking into setting up its own bulk fuel tank somewhere in the district.
Timber Knob VFD
Fire chief: Nancy Winslow
Roster: 32, but only 25 are active, and during the daytime only two to three may be available to respond.
Members: About 150
Annual dues: $50
For more information: Come to a meeting at 6 p.m. on the first Monday of the month at the firehouse on W Highway just west of Highway 5 south. “We’ll interview the person and go through what’s expected of them,” said Winslow.
Chief’s comments: Nancy Winslow stepped into the TKVFD chief’s role when her mother, Ruby Winslow, retired after several years as chief. Nancy’s dad, Butch Winslow, is a retired law enforcement officer, and her sister served in the Army. “It’s in our blood,” she said, describing her family’s tradition of public service. She’s been through some “bad calls,” she said, including the 2010 heart-attack death of a TKVFD firefighter who collapsed while working a traffic accident. “He died in front of me,” she said. She tried to retire from the fire department after that tragedy. But then, a few months later, a call came to deliver a baby. “No one could take it, so I put myself back into service,” she said. “I delivered that baby.” Since then, there have been other bad calls, “like when we’ve had to wait for the coroner,” for instance. But there’ve been good times too, “like when there’s a massive wreck, and the people are OK,” she said. And then there’s the memory of the accident victim who said, when the TKVFD volunteers arrived, “Oh, it’s Timber Knob. Thank God.” Two recent ordeals had the department’s volunteers working seven hours at the scene of one semi-truck accident and 13 hours at another one. A Dollar General truck flipped over on Highway 5 south, and 22 TKVFD firefighters worked 13 hours unloading the truck’s trailer so it could be flipped back over. “I was rotating them in and out,” she said. At the earlier truck accident, Nancy used her smartphone to communicate with the Russian driver, who spoke very little English. “I would talk into the phone and it played it back in Russian so the driver could understand,” she said. There’s a job for every volunteer, she said. “Some are firefighters and first responders. Some just do traffic control. And some – you can go to Town & Country to get us water and coffee and sandwich stuff when we’re stuck out there for hours and hours.”
Chief: Scott Watson
Roster: 10 firefighters, no first responders.
Annual dues: $45
For more information: Attend a meeting at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of the month in the firehouse south of Wasola on Highway 5 about 15 miles north of Gainesville.
Chief’s comments: Like Nancy Winslow, Scott Watson stepped into the chief’s role after his parent, Darrell Watson, had held the job for several years. His mother, the late Audean Watson, was a department volunteer too, and several other members of his family continue as WVFD volunteers as well. Watson said he would “love to have more volunteers” to cover the 110-square-mile district, the county’s largest, stretching from the Gainesville city limits to the Douglas County line, encompassing the area once served by Bryant VFD, which disbanded several years ago. “There’s something for everybody to do,” he said. “For instance, if we go to a brush fire, it’s handy to have somebody who can just stay with the truck and pass out water, or move the truck if it needs to be moved.