Scott Campbell (left) and Roger Carter (right) of the Center
City & Rural Fire Department put out a trailer of smoldering
hay bales as the trailer’s
owner, James Howald, looks on. The north-central Missouri fire
department is typical of small, volunteer rural fire departments.
Working in the 100-degree heat, firefighters wore
shorts and T-shirts once the situation was under control. (fire
photo by Eric Syverson.)
known for waiting — sitting around a fire station
and listening for the sound of an alarm that will beckon them to a
In the northeast Missouri town of Center and other rural communities
throughout the state, it rarely happens that way. Most of the time,
the men and women who fight fires are at work, spraying a field with
pesticide or laboring on a factory floor. Other times, they are relaxing
at a barbecue or sleeping soundly in the comfort of their own beds
when the pager goes off, beckoning them to an unknown and potentially
These local heroes often use their own vehicles and gas to answer calls.
They donate hundreds of hours each year preparing, training and responding
to fires. And though they are paid nothing for it, they would have
it no other way.
“I wouldn't want to go to Chicago or some big city to be paid,” says
Jason Liter, assistant fire chief at the Center City & Rural Fire
Department in northeast Missouri. “I'm happy in a rural area.”
Center City & Rural Fire Department consists of 14 volunteer
firefighters who spend many hours training and responding to
emergencies. Pictured from left: Jason Liter, Gene Calhoun,
Pete Hilgenbrinck, Brooke Hilgenbrinck and Jamie Allen.
In Missouri, 90
percent of the state's fire departments rely on volunteers like Jason.
In fact, of the 898 fire departments throughout the state, 614 are
volunteer departments and another 197 are “combination
departments,” with both volunteer and paid firefighters.
At the same time,
the number of volunteers has declined nationwide during the past
two decades. Since 1983, the number of volunteer firefighters has
dropped 10 percent, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
This trend is attributed to a number of factors, including the fact
that fewer people are staying in their hometowns and employees are
commuting farther to work, so they can’t answer a call
“In a small community, without a large business base, there's just not
many people around during the day,” says Jason. “Here in Center,
there are about 14 firemen on the roster, but only about six to eight are
Pete Hilgenbrinck, Center’s fire chief, works as a manufacturing supervisor
in Quincy, Ill., and drives an hour to and from work each day. Despite being
exhausted after a long day of work and an inconvenient commute, he responds
to emergency calls at night and spends many hours on paperwork and training.
fire chief Jason Liter laughs with a local citizen while helping
at Center's Annual Park Day. Volunteering at local events and
fundraisers is one more aspect of a volunteer firefighter's job.
“My wife has told the other guys several times, ‘If you see my husband,
tell him to come home,’” he says.
Such devoted firefighters know the job requires more than a half-hearted
commitment. All volunteers must complete the same rigid certification standards
as career professionals. In fact, the State Fire Marshal’s Office doesn’t
even differentiate between volunteers and full-time employees for Missouri’s
20,034 certified firefighters.
Besides going to
fire school once per year, Center’s volunteers attend
training sessions twice per month at the station. During the sessions, they
review safety procedures, practice timed drills and check equipment. Last
year, the small group of active volunteers logged a combined 480
hours of training, in addition to the many hours spent responding
to emergency calls.
As Jason says, “There’s a lot more to it than squirting the wet
stuff on the red stuff.”
He knows a volunteer firefighter’s schedule is never set in stone.
Every-thing can change at the buzz of a pager or the squawk of a radio. That
sound sets everything in motion.
Liter steers the fire engine while informing dispatch that
the Center Fire Department is doing a test drill. Monthly training
keeps the firefighters prepared for actual emergencies.
When Jason’s pager or hand-held radio goes off, he responds by jumping
in his truck, turning on its blue emergency light and calling other available
firefighters on his way to the scene or fire station. If there aren’t
enough volunteers available, he’ll alert 911 and request mutual aid
from neighboring towns.
often the first emergency personnel on scene. As part of First Responders,
a program that requires an initial 70 hours of medical training and
24 hours every three years afterward, Center’s volunteers
are certified to administer CPR and extract victims from autombile accidents.
Between reviving unconscious victims, helping neighboring towns and extinguishing
fires, the firefighters seem to do it all.
“Basically, we’re glorified pack mules,” says Pete. “But
when we come together, even as small as we are, we really put it together.”
After arriving at a fire, each of the men and women has a different responsibility.
While firefighter Gene Calhoun might run the pumper, emergency medical technician
and volunteer fireman Jamie Allen attends to injured victims. All egos and job
titles fall to the wayside.
“Once we get there, we don’t care about titles,” says Pete. “We’re
there to get the job done.
Keith Golian hooks up a hose and turns on a fire hydrant during
a timed fire drill. Such drills are designed to simulate a real
Over the past five
years, the firefighters’ response time and capabilities
have improved drastically. Pete recalls a time not so long ago when citizens
referred to Center’s department as a “foundation fire department,” meaning
the firefighters often arrived so late they only saved the foundation.
But the station has experienced a drastic turnaround due to vast equipment
improvements — thanks
largely to grants from the Missouri Department of Conservation and the
Federal Emergency Management Agency — and more training requirements.
“If I’ve enjoyed anything the most, I’d say it’s seeing
this department come together,” says Pete. “I’d put
it against any other department.”
He is quick to point out such success wouldn’t be possible without the
support of his and other firefighters’ families. Their loved ones
often wait at the station during training sessions, and understand when
a pager goes off and they have to leave a ballgame or barbecue.
Some of the firefighters’ family members are even getting into the act.
Pete’s 19-year-old daughter, Brooke, recently became a volunteer
firefighter, and his teenage son, Cody, hopes to one day fight fires.
“I’d let my kids be firefighters in a heartbeat,” he says with
pride. “I hope they’ll take our place someday.”
Such passion isn’t uncommon among volunteer firefighters. They
understand the job is more than just helping people, attending training
sessions and putting out fires.
“It becomes a part of you,” says Jason. “It really gets in
more information, contact your local fire station, or visit the University
of Missouri Fire & Rescue Training Institute’s
Web site at www.mufrti.org.