Part 2: Practical limitations define present role of Arrow Rock fire department
Editor's note: This story is the second of three exploring the challenges of operating a rural fire service, with the focus on Arrow Rock's experience, past and present.
In the late 1800s, a traveler searching for lodging rang a bell at the J. Huston Tavern, and dozens left their homes to hurried to the scene.
The townsfolk most likely assumed the worst.
Mike Dickey, local historian and Arrow Rock Community Fire Department first responder, said the 19th century townsfolk had been conditioned to answer the bell's toll in emergencies.
"It says there were volunteer firefighters," Dickey said as he gestured to a period newspaper clip. "But it was basically the town's people coming together."
More than a century later, the Arrow Rock Community Fire Department's volunteers have a pumper, tanker, brush truck and protective gear. Additionally, some of its volunteers have acquired formal training.
While some have medical experience and others have been trained to enter burning buildings, still others, such as Dickey, drive the trucks and pump water. Just as the townsfolk responded to the J. Huston Tavern's bell, these volunteers answer their radios and pagers during emergency situations in Nelson, Napton, Arrow Rock and a small portion of Cooper County.
"They need us to protect their home and not only their home but their farmland and their equipment. And that's our job, to understand all of it," said former Assistant Fire Chief Steve Bertani.
Fires have plagued Arrow Rock's history. The earliest fire-related disasters date back to Civil War guerrilla warfare, while more recent ones have threatened the J. Huston Tavern in 1998 and the Lyceum dormitory in 2004. This year the volunteer fire department has responded to 40 medical calls and eight fire calls.
"We might only get [eight] fire calls, but one of those could be catastrophic and could be devastating to the community," Dickey said.
With the volunteer department's limited amenities, Chairman of the Board of Directors Tom Beamer explained the organization provides immediate assistance during emergency situations. The volunteers contain structure fires and address a victim's breathing and bleeding. They also radio information to en route ambulances, but they don't necessarily save burning buildings.
"We fight it as much as we can, until we can get help," Beamer said.
For larger fires E911 sends out either the Marshall or Slater fire department simultaneously with the Arrow Rock first responders.
"If we have a problem, we have a good relationship with Slater and Marshall," Beamer said. "If we have a problem, they'll be down as quick as they can make it."
Firefighter Jason Hunter recalled using this mutual aid agreement during a fire at the Lyceum Theatre's dorms in April 2004. While the Marshall Fire Department assisted, the Arrow Rock first responders arrived on scene first and stayed long after the Marshall firefighters returned north.
However, the Arrow Rock Community Fire Department salvaged some of the actors' personal possessions.
"We were on the scene 10 to 15 minutes before Marshall was," Hunter said. "We spent probably two hours after Marshall left doing the final clean up."
The building burned, and a new dormitory was constructed. Beamer cited the cost of regular insurance. He said if the department had the resources to save a structure, the annual $50 dues would be significantly higher.
Just like the 19th century townsfolk who could have stayed tucked in their beds when the traveler rang the bell, but didn't -- Beamer said these volunteers are never required to respond to a call, but do.
Regardless, the commitment is steep. Arrow Rock Fire Chief Bob Hunter never leaves the area without telling Beamer.
When Bertani served on the department, he never left the area without letting another firefighter know he wouldn't be able to respond to emergencies.
"We are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year," Bertani said. "Volunteers don't get vacation time."
While some members partake in formal training, Beamer said a volunteer does not have to have completed training to answer a fire call.
As a fire area, the Arrow Rock Community Fire Department is self-governed and funded by area dues.
The department's equipment does not have to meet state or federal regulations because the group is not state or federally funded.
Saline County Ambulance District furnishes the necessary medical equipment, but the department uses due money to support the station, vehicles and everyday expenses. Roughly 325 members pay $50 a year for fire protection. Most of the time, the $11,000 yearly budget supplies used but usable equipment.
"We should not purchase any equipment that is not national fire regulated," Beamer said. "But there's no law that says we can't go out and put a fire out, if we don't have it."
Steadily, the board has begun replacing the equipment.
This year, they furnished the firefighters two new sets of gear and began addressing a wish list for updating equipment.
"With seven fires a year, we don't get the gear soaking wet and smoky and filthy," Beamer said. "We're not in Kansas City or St. Louis or even Columbia."
Those who don't pay dues risk higher fees, if E911 dispatches the Arrow Rock Community Fire Department to an emergency.
The victims will have to pay $100 initial fee and then $500 an hour up to $10,000 for first responder services.
Last year's expenses totaled nearly $23,000. Beamer said the only reason the organization stayed out of the red was because non-member fire calls provided extra funding.
"If you stop and think about it, $23,000 to run (eight) fire calls is pretty expensive," Beamer said.
Editor's note: Part three of this series will look at new challenges ahead as visions diverge about the direction the Arrow Rock Fire Department should take.
Contact Maggie Menderski at email@example.com
Part 1: Arrow Rock's history punctuated by devastating fires
Part 3: Rift threatens future of Arrow Rock Community Fire Department