- Featured Stories
- Douglas County
- City of Ava
- General Interest
By John Stanton
Eastern Douglas County VFD
In Missouri, there are three types of fire departments, Paid, Taxing Districts, and Association. Paid departments may be full-time career service or combination, meaning they have a cadre of paid career service fire fighters and the remainder of the department is volunteer. Taxing Districts are usually volunteer, but may have some paid employees. Association Fire Departments are generally all volunteer.
In Douglas County, there are 11 active fire departments; 10 of these are Association Fire Departments. Two of the 11, Dora Fire-Rescue and Brixey-Rockbridge VFD, are Ozark County Departments with protection areas that extend into Douglas County. Cabool VFD is a Texas County Department with a protection area that extends into Douglas County.
In 2008, the State of Missouri required, by State Statute, that all Fire Departments establish permanent boundaries and file these legally described boundaries with the administrative body of each county the department operates in. Further, no other fire department is allowed to operate within the boundaries of another fire department without the express permission of that specific department. There are two exceptions, first, departments may respond into another department’s area as mutual aid, if requested; and second, departments may respond into another department’s area if there is an ‘Automatic Aid’ agreement in force.
The Fire Protection Area in which you live is the primary responder. You may hold membership in as many departments as you wish, however, if you do not hold a membership in the department in whose Fire Protection Area you live, they can consider you a non-member and bill accordingly.
The Protection Areas of these 10 Association Fire Departments varies from 24 square miles to over 100 square miles. All provide fire suppression, medical first response, motor vehicle accident response, and disaster response. The respective Protection Areas boundaries were drawn with priority given to physical boundaries. A secondary consideration was the distance from the fire station to the furthest most point in the Protection Area. Physical boundaries, i.e. Bryant Creek, could prevent a department’s response from one side to the other in a high-water event. In some cases, the lesser of two evils prevails. Where a physical boundary could prevent response, it might also extend a boundary farther from the fire station; the trade-off being the ability to get there versus not being able to get there.
While each department faces unique challenges in its Protection Area, all have common problems. First and foremost is the recruitment and retention of qualified volunteers. Like a sports team, fire departments need a specific number of personnel to effectively combat a structure fire. One would not field a baseball team with only seven members or a football team with only nine. Each team member has a specific job to do, and when that member is absent, the team is ineffective. The second largest problem is funding. Association Fire Departments depend upon the dues paid by their respective members to “keep the doors open.” Other funding comes from fundraisers, grants, and donations.
The third common problem is equipment. Most departments are working with equipment handed down from other departments. This runs from trucks to hose nozzles. The only ‘new’ equipment is bought by federal or state grant money that a department may have been lucky enough to obtain. Even with a federal grant, the department must come up with 10 percent. On a $300,000 grant to purchase a new NFPA compliant Engine, the department must come up with $30,000 dollars. When annual cash revenues total $7,500, this can present a serious problem.
Part of living in rural Missouri is the fact that both fire and medical response can be either a long way off and/or a long time coming. Emergency Medical Responders (First Responders) from the respective departments take up the slack in response time for an ambulance. In the east end of Douglas County, there is no formal ambulance district. While Cox Ambulance covers the west end of the county, their travel time to points east can be lengthy. Cox does an excellent job of finding the closest ambulance to the call, which may be St. John’s or Texas Memorial, out of Mountain Grove, South Howell County Ambulance out of West Plains, or Willow Springs Ambulance out of Willow Springs. It is up to the volunteer Emergency Medical Responders to provide as much medical aid as possible prior to the ambulance’s arrival.
State Law requires that Emergency Medical Responders successfully complete a state approved medical course. Once trained, EMRs work under the respective ambulance districts and follow the ambulance district’s protocols. Continuous training is provided by the respective ambulance district. As an example, Willow Springs Ambulance District supports the Willow Springs Area Emergency Medical Responders Association. This Association is made up of the EMRs from fire departments in Howell, Douglas, and Ozark counties. Monthly training is mandated and provided to all EMRs in the Association by the Ambulance District.
Additionally, in order to reduce response times on medical calls, EMRs respond from home in their own vehicles. There is no reimbursement or compensation for fuel. Most departments require that all department EMRs respond to a call if they are available. The first EMR on scene determines if he/she needs additional personnel. If not, the EMRs still en route are cancelled. Experience has shown that in many cases we cannot have too many EMRs on scene.
A secondary consideration for a full response is that all three of the local medical helicopters, AirEvac, Cox, and St. John’s want ground personnel on scene if they have to land in a non-designated landing zone. EMRs bear the responsibility for this activity as well. While setting a helicopter down in an open field may be handled by one EMR on the ground, doing so in the middle of a highway intersection requires a minimum of four ground personnel.
Fire responses can become even more complicated. Brush or wildland fires are, in most cases not a serious emergency, unless there is a structure, vehicle, etc., endangered.
Some departments maintain their brush trucks at the station; some allow fire fighters who are generally available, to take the truck home.
A direct response is usually a lot quicker then having to travel to the station to get the truck. Additionally, there is often civilian assistance on scene when the department arrives. Most rural homeowners in the Ozarks are familiar with wildland fires and know how to combat them, willingly pitching in to assist the fire department. This is not to say that wildland fires are not dangerous; one out of every four firefighters killed in the line of duty dies in a wildland fire.
Motor vehicle and structure fires present a much more serious event. While a wildland fire can generate heat in the 800-degree range and burning brush and wood do generate carbon monoxide, car and structure fires generate heat in the 1200-degree range and produce carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, and a plethora of other toxic gases. Carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, in combination can kill in seconds if inhaled.
Most new vehicles on the road today have plastic or fiberglass fuel tanks. They melt, and can drop a significant amount of fuel onto the pavement/ground all at once. There are also numerous pressurized cylinders in vehicles. Some hold the trunk, hood, or hatch up when opened and some cause airbags to inflate etc. All of these present a serious risk. Most are rod and piston type and will often ‘fire’ the rod out of the cylinder at very high speeds.
Structure fires present some unique circumstances. A large number of single-family residences in Douglas County are homeowner-built, and while most made an effort to follow code where electric and plumbing are concerned, the actual structure is probably not built to any code. Many residences built in the 60′s and 70′s were constructed with lumber cut on the property. It may be pine, oak, maple, or a combination of different wood. The old pine that has aged over the years burns extremely well. Couple that with the residence filled with ‘modern’ materials in the form of carpet, furniture, draperies, etc., and the result is a very hot, very fast moving fire.
It is particularly common to roof over, or add on to mobile homes. It is almost impossible to ventilate these false-roof structures. In combating a structure fire, proper ventilation of the fire is a key factor in stopping it. Again, we are faced with a structure filled with ‘modern’ materials, burning faster and hotter.
In the U.S., 19 percent of all fires are residential structures. However, residential structure fires account for 66 percent of all fire deaths. The fire service has seen dramatic changes in the last 30 years, both in fire prevention and in fire suppression. Training standards have increased significantly; we have better tactics on the fire scene and better equipment to use. On the other hand, fires have also changed significantly. Thirty years ago, it was generally accepted that a fire would double in size every four minutes, then that became every two minutes, and we are now down to one minute.
Older wood-frame structures, despite the fact they burn very well, actually burn slower and cooler. New construction uses ‘new’ materials. Oriented strand board (OSB) is essentially chipped wood, glued and pressed to form a sheet of usable material.
It is the material of choice for ‘boxing’ the exterior and often used on the walls of the interior. Using OSB, set vertically between two 2x4s, makes a beam that is roughly four times stronger then a dimensionally cut all-wood board of the same width, until it catches fire. OSB, consisting of small pieces of wood, glued together, burns very hot and very fast. The fabricated beam looses structural integrity many times faster then a dimensional all-wood beam of the same width.
The International Residential Code (IRC) is the code followed for the construction of residential homes. However, individual states have the option of adopting or not adopting the Code intact, or opting out of some provisions. The Code does an excellent job of making sure there is structural integrity and provides for specific fire barriers, fireproofing, and fire resistive materials. However, the construction industry develops better and less expensive materials continuously. How these materials perform in a fire is very often not completely evaluated before the materials are put into use.
Modern materials are almost all derived from petroleum in some form or fashion. They burn hotter, and faster. They produce very toxic gases when heated beyond a specific temperature. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) need only be heated to 351 degrees to off-gas hydrogen cyanide. When most people think of a toxic gas, they think of something that will have an almost immediate affect, such as chlorine gas or a nerve gas.
Reality is that toxic gases produced in fires may have an immediate effect, or as is more often the case, accumulate in the body and manifest severe effects hours, days, or years later. The subject of toxic gases produced in fires and how they affect the human body is a lengthy subject in itself. During a training session at a local department, the instructor asked the question, “Why do we wear SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus)?” One fire fighter answered, “So we can breathe.” Another answered, “So we can breathe later!” Both answers were correct, but given the extreme toxicity and the accumulative tendencies of the toxic fire gases produced in today’s fires, the “So we can breathe later” is the better answer.
Think about this:
Seventy-two percent of all the firefighters in the United States are volunteers. In Douglas County, 99 percent are volunteers. Your neighbors, stopping everything they are doing, to come help you.
Even if you give me a dirty look at the grocery store because you had a bad day, I will still come cut you out of your mangled car at 3 a.m.
Even if you don’t get out of my way when you see my emergency lights, I will still give you CPR when you are in cardiac arrest.
Even if you flick me off in traffic because you are in a hurry, I will still risk my life to get your child out of your burning house.
Even if you cut in front of me at the bank, I will still train countless hours to prepare to try and save you.
Even if you won’t make eye contact with me as I stand out in the freezing cold with a boot asking for donations, I will still risk my life to save yours.
And even if you never say Thank You, I will always stand ready to be there for you in your darkest hour.
(This is the first in a series of articles the Herald plans to do over a period of several months, to help the public better understand the role of volunteer firefighters in Douglas County.)