Part 3: Competing visions: Rift complicates future of Arrow Rock Community Fire Department
Editor's note: This story is the final of three exploring the challenges of operating a rural fire service, with the focus on Arrow Rock's experience, past and present.
Former Arrow Rock Assistant Fire Chief Steve Bertani estimated it takes 15-18 minutes for outside fire assistance to arrive in Arrow Rock.
Fire can damage a lot in 15 minutes.
The Arrow Rock Community Fire Department depends on the mutual aid of Marshall and Slater fire departments for serious structure fires. With the 10-mile distance in mind, Bertani and six other volunteers strove to improve the Arrow Rock's fire protection.
The group wanted updated, safer and more reliable equipment. When some volunteers felt the fire department's board of directors lacked reception to their concerns, Bertani along with Patrick Baker, Jackie Baker and Dan Keller relinquished their ties to the organization.
"There are firefighting standards, and we feel we should be meeting those standards," Bertani said.
They attribute lack of communication and a generation gap to the rift. A disagreement founded in training, equipment and age has left Arrow Rock, Nelson, Napton and dues-paying residents in Cooper County with a weakened fire department.
Just months before, Arrow Rock first responder Mike Dickey thought the organization seemed stronger than it had ever been in his 25 years of service.
"Once we started the formal training, I told my wife this is the first time in 25 years in this department that I feel like I'm actually learning what I'm supposed to be doing when I go to a call," Dickey said.
Dickey had hoped Bertani and the younger generation of firefighters would take the department in a more professional direction.
"Right now if we have a call, the only truly able-bodied person who is trained is that gentleman right there," Dickey said with a nod to firefighter Jason Hunter. "Firefighting is generally a younger person's game."
Dan Keller turned in his gear and radio well after Bertani and the Bakers. While he stopped responding to calls weeks ago, a strong tie to the community made forfeiting his connection difficult.
"I grew up here," Keller said. "I grew up four miles up the road. I've lived here all my life. I know everybody, and that does weigh heavily on my conscience."
Whenever a structure catches fire in Arrow Rock, E911 sends out the Marshall or Slater fire departments simultaneously with Arrow Rock's first responders. With a small fleet of firefighters and an $11,000 yearly budget, the group of volunteers understandably needs help for larger calls.
Bertani, who had come to Arrow Rock with 8 years of experience from St. Louis, had implemented formal training. The traditional practices of the department didn't match up to the basic standards he had known in his career as a firefighter.
Chairman of the Board Tom Beamer stressed Arrow Rock's role as a volunteer fire department has always been to address emergency situations with its limited resources and abilities. The team ensures a victim is breathing, stops any bleeding and radios information to an en route ambulance. As volunteers, excellent care has never been their true job description, according to Beamer.
The chairman explained if they were actually supposed to save buildings the $50 dues would increase dramatically. He cited the cost of insurance, and noted if funding like that was available, the group could potentially handle the roles provided by mutual aid. However, the department's call volume doesn't nearly match that of Slater or Marshall, and therefore its budget doesn't mimic the neighboring towns either.
Bertani, the Bakers, Keller, Hunter and his wife, Alicia, have the training to offer excellent care, but not necessarily the equipment. Jackie Baker is an LPN. Alicia is a certified first responder. Bertani, Keller and Patrick are trained to enter a flaming structure, even if Beamer believes as volunteers the group doesn't have to take that risk.
Having completed training, the young members wanted equipment fit for entering a burning building. Bertani along with Keller, the Bakers, the Hunters and Dickey continuously cited the current equipment as unreliable and unsafe.
"If we have to go in, we know the risk, okay," Keller said, noting the department's deficient equipment. "But you know, we want the odds in our favor, and all we want is some help."
Beamer explained most of the time the Arrow Rock Community Fire Department fights fire from the outside. He also said the organization would never require an unwilling or uncertified volunteer to enter a structure. But the inactive firefighters along with active firefighters Jason Hunter and Dickey recognized a deeper purpose to entering a building.
Additionally, the group feared lives could be lost during the mutual aid's commute.
"If someone can go in and find somebody and get them out before the house is fully engulfed," Dickey said. "Well that's one of the reasons you go into the house, to make sure there's nobody in there."
The board obliged with requests for newer gear and purchased two suits this year. But the firefighters' desire for independence from Marshall and Slater grew along with the wish list of materials. Beamer reminded his volunteers of the tight budget. While he agreed the department needed to be updated, he disagreed with many of the items they requested.
In an attempt to prepare the Arrow Rock area for any emergency, the younger firefighters had asked for a list of items totaling up to $76,932. The group prioritized the items as immediate, short-term and long-term, but felt as though the board dismissed their requests. While the board approved some updated equipment, many of the items on the list were considered unnecessary.
Keeping in mind the fire department's limitations, Beamer explained spending $1,000 for salvage covers seemed like a waste of money. Additionally, he saw no need to purchase foldable traffic cones and LED traffic batons when the fire department already had standard cones to block off areas and flashlights to direct traffic. Having never needed a rope for a rescue, Beamer dismissed the rope and rope bag the firefighters requested as well.
"(Bertani) wanted to bring this station up to 2011 from 1980 in one year," Beamer said. "Arrow Rock does not do anything fast."
Beamer carefully noted the limitations of a fire area as opposed to a fire district such as Marshall. Districts receive funding through taxes, whereas areas must rely on dues, fees, grants and fundraisers. With an $11,000 budget, the chairman said it's impractical to suggest Arrow Rock acquire the same amenities of the Marshall or Slater fire departments.
"You can't spend money on stuff that you're going to use maybe once in the station's lifetime," Beamer said gesturing to the wish list the firefighters had submitted.
Several firefighters and first responders, both active and inactive, believed the Arrow Rock Community Fire Department should strive to handle their own calls instead of relying on mutual aid. Seven volunteers submitted a letter to the board on Oct. 13 addressing concerns of equipment, specifically the need for a new pumper.
Bertani explained the pumper had been unreliable on numerous occasions, and the letter sought a solution for obtaining a new truck. As the department's mechanic, Patrick Baker said taking equipment this unreliable on calls seemed unwise.
"If you had your car, and it kept breaking down would you go off to Texas in it? I wouldn't," Patrick said. "It's the same thing. You have no idea, it's been unreliable so many times."
When the pumper went for repairs, some firefighters felt the void left the area unprotected.
Then a string of brush fires occurred toward Malta Bend. The firefighters feared Slater or Marshall might be occupied with their own call and unable to respond, if the Arrow Rock first responders needed assistance.
"We were sweating bullets down here because we did not have our primary truck at that time, ..." Dickey said. "You cannot absolutely rely on [mutual aid], so we need to be as independent as we can be within budgetary restraints."
Beamer acknowledged the concerns addressed in the letter, but he noted the volunteers had yet to arrive at a feasible solution for obtaining a new truck. He recognized the group had valid questions, but said they lacked attainable answers to their concerns.
Before the inactive members left, they'd hoped to rally some support within the community to generate funding for better equipment. Dickey felt there were people in the area who might donate money for repairs or even a new truck, if they knew the department needed help. He also mentioned when the department first formed, townsfolk raised $16,000 to build the firehouse, purchase a truck and buy some equipment. After the house used in a Tom Sawyer film burned down in 1972, the Historic Arrow Rock Council organized basket dinners, fish fries and street dances to fund the department.
"The community got behind in developing the fire department, and it was seen as an urgent need," Dickey said. "Having lost the house that had been in the movie was a big incentive for that."
Almost as immediately as Bertani, the Bakers and Keller quit, Beamer found replacements for the department. However, the disbanded firefighters had already received formal training.
"So they've lost a few and they've gained three, if that's how they want to look at it," Bertani said. "But they've lost trained personnel to gain three untrained personnel."
Beamer said the new team members have begun training and are enthusiastic.
He also noted the department is eagerly seeking more members.
"Anybody we have is important, I can't say that they're not important people or that we can do just as well without them," Beamer said. "I can't say that because we need the hands."
Contact Maggie Menderski at firstname.lastname@example.org
Part 1: Part 1: Arrow Rock's history punctuated by devastating fires
Part 2: Practical limitations define the role of Arrow Rock fire department