During the unseasonably hot and dry February of 1996, Poolville, Texas, was ablaze. The Poolville Volunteer Fire Department tried to battle back the fire, but the flames were fueled by whipping winds, 90° temperatures and tinderlike conditions. The tiny rural department, located 35 miles northwest of Fort Worth, simply didn't have the equipment or training to fight the fire. In the end, 16 firefighters were injured, and thousands of acres and dozens of homes were destroyed.
Although the Poolville conflagration was the worst, 48,000 acres and 113 structures in Central and East Texas burned during that month. At each fire the story had been the same: The breaking blaze simply overwhelmed local volunteer forces.
“So many rural departments were trying to assist,” says Mona Bridges, a staff assistant at the Texas Forest Service. “They always got there first, but they didn't have the equipment to handle it.”
The roots of gear assistance
Devastated by the catastrophe, Texas firefighters appealed to the 1997 state legislature. State representative and volunteer firefighter Bob Turner pled their case and introduced Texas House bill 680, informally known as the Helping Hands legislation. The bill allows organizations to donate excess equipment to volunteer fire departments without worrying about liability.
The VFD Helping Hands Program, run by the Texas Forest Service, is the central agency that inspects, certifies and then distributes equipment. Since Sept. 1, 1997, the program has issued over $6 million in equipment.
“By heck, it's worked,” Turner says.
But only to a point. Even though Oklahoma has passed similar legislation, under-equipped, under-trained rural volunteer firefighters remain the norm.
In 1999, 112 U.S. firefighters died in the line of duty. Seventy-four, or 66%, were volunteers. Of the volunteers, 44, or 60%, were from rural areas. According to the's 1999 Firefighter Fatality Report, inadequate equipment and poor training caused the majority of the volunteer deaths.
Now at least five groups, both state-sponsored and volunteer-run, are collecting and distributing equipment to impoverished rural volunteer fire departments. But they can't gather and give quickly enough, making their good work only a temporary solution. For roughly 10,000 departments, a base minimum of training and equipment can't be reached without significant state or national funding.
Hands across America
On March 18, 2000, Harry Carter, a New Jersey municipal fire protection consultant, received an e-mail from a volunteer department in Smithland, a small East Texas town, asking for help. The volunteers desperately needed donated equipment.
The 20 members of the Smithland Volunteer Fire Department only had a converted military 6×6 with a water tank and rear-mounted pump and two SCBAs. Their helmets were cracked and their worn turnout gear didn't fit, so they fought fires in street clothes, using surround-and-drown operations while waiting for aid from 15 miles away.
They also had no alerting system. When there was an emergency, the county Sheriff's Department notified them by telephone. If they weren't near the phone, they missed it.
Why, if the Helping Hands Program worked, was the Smithland VFD fighting fires like this? Why, three years after the program began, did it still have a barely functioning pumper, no turnout gear and no radios?
“Even with Helping Hands we're still not doing well,” Bridges says. “We can't get enough help to them quick enough. We're a small agency compared to how much is needed out there.”
“We didn't know anything about [Helping Hands],” says Smithland Fire Chief Ricky Stevens.
In mid-March, Carter posted Smithland's plight on his Web site, <<a href="http://www.harrycarter.com" target="_blank">www.harrycarter.com>, and volunteered to coordinate the donation effort. But according to the site, “Many said they would like to help but were afraid of the liability issues arising from the donation of used gear and equipment.”
Finally, in mid-April, Chief John Gentry of the Roxboro (N.C.) Fire Department responded. He had a 1978 pumper, which had recently passed its annual service test, to offer Smithland. He would leave all the equipment on it, so it would arrive ready to use. And he would re-letter the pumper for the Smithland department.
The day after they got the truck, the Smithland volunteers were called to a house fire at 1 a.m.
“We were the first ones there,” Stevens says.
They didn't save the house, but they salvaged the woods and surrounding area and stopped the fire from spreading.
After the initial success, however, Carter didn't set up a program. “I don't have the time to do it,” he said. “It's almost soul-consuming.”
Take care of your own
Mark Warnick, volunteer firefighter with the Brixey and Rockbridge Volunteer Fire & Rescue in the Missouri Ozarks turned founder of an equipment-donating organization, Helping Our Own, says, “These programs are a Band-Aid fix on an arterial bleed.”
Warnick began Helping Our Own after being asked to find equipment for his own department, which had only a 1955 Barton American with a 500gpm pump and a 1967 fuel tanker converted into a water tanker with a 150gpm pump for structure fires. For brush fires, there was a 1946 brush truck and a 1984 Chevy pickup turned into a brush truck. The trucks were slow, unreliable and sometimes dangerous. The converted water tanker lost its brakes going downhill last year.
The department had no SCBAs, and just six good sets of turnout gear in varying sizes. “I'm a big boy,” Warnick says. “My size just wasn't there.”
To aid his equipment search, Warnick testified before the Missouri Senate in favor of a bill similar to Texas' Helping Hands legislation. His testimony garnered a lot of local publicity. Soon offers of free equipment began streaming in from all over Missouri and the East Coast. Warnick realized there was more equipment than just one little department could use.
In the meantime, Warnick has spent almost $10,000 of his own money on Helping Our Own. He takes trips across the country collecting and donating equipment, following the map of available equipment his state coordinators find. Each trip costs between $1,300 and $5,000.
Since the program started last February, it has donated approximately $6 million in equipment to 80 volunteer fire departments.
In late February when Warnick returned from his fourth trip to collect and distribute equipment, there were seven requests for help on his desk. He usually gets four to six a week.
Capt. Jay Arnold of the Gosport (Ind.) Volunteer Fire Department wrote to thank Warnick for his Web site, <<a href="http://www.helpingourown.com" target="_blank">www.helpingourown.com>. His department doesn't have a real building, so the trucks are always exposed to the weather. In the winter they can't keep water in them due to freezing, “but the guys keep showing up for runs.”
A volunteer department in Concrete, N.D., wrote that they have one truck, a 1966 Ford that pumps 160gpm. To serve a community of 58, they have a budget of just $2,000 per year. They asked Warnick for small, mailable items like radio receivers, 21/2-inch nozzles and pagers. But they really need much more. They don't even have a ladder.
“I get these daily and it kills me,” Warnick says. “Our brothers and sisters are out there unequipped.”
Even the $90 million that the FIRE Act will fund for a variety of firefighters' needs is also too small a solution for the rural departments' problems, Warnick says. “The FIRE Bill is gone. The first 1,500 to get their proposals in get it.”
Warnick, who is also politically active, is more supportive of the USFS's Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program. Last year the program was funded at $3.25 million, but even that's “not enough,” he says.
For example, last year Missouri received $50,000 to help 980 departments. If divided evenly, each department would only get about $500, Warnick said. But the money is multiplying. This year the program is funded at $13.28 million, and the NVFC is asking for $20 million next year.
The legislation Warnick is most involved with is a national bill to release equipment donors from liability, patterned after Texas' Helping Hands legislation. Called the Good Samaritan Volunteer Firefighter Assistance Act, it was introduced too late in last year's House session to pass, but its sponsor, Rep. Michael Castle (Del.), plans to try again.
Helping Our Own is also trying to improve training. In February, a volunteer department in Gainesville, Pa., received a 100-foot aerial quint truck and the training and certification to go with it by four nationally certified trainers.
But Warnick's goal isn't to become the ultimate agency of equipment donating and training. “In 15 years, I would hope all this was taken care of and I could shut down Helping Our Own.”
The California Department of Forestry has 30 trucks to donate to Adopt-A-Fire-Department, a Pennsylvania-based volunteer-run equipment exchange. But until the liability issue is resolved the trucks will stay in California, Adopt-A-Fire-Department founder Lou Angeli says.
According to the NVFC, the Good Samaritan bill combats things like California departments' fear and the need for dumpster drops, when one department anonymously calls another to tell them where equipment will be dropped off, simply to avoid liability.
“It's common-sense liability reform,” NVFC government affairs representative Craig Sharman says. “It should be out in the open. You need it. Here it is.”
The perception of the threat of liability, rather than the reality, causes companies not to donate their excess equipment. In testimony over the Helping Hands legislation, many petrochemical companies said their lawyers had advised them against giving equipment, Texas state representative Bob Turner says.
Warnick, however, has some concerns about the independent testing of each piece of equipment the bill calls for.
“NFPA should be thrown out the window when you've go no gear,” he said. “Getting them in something is better than nothing.”
But Warnick agrees that equipment with life-threatening consequences if they fail, like SCBAs, road-ready trucks and anything mechanical, should be tested. “But with turnout gear, you'll only get as far as the heat lets you,” he says. “Let's not get too technical.”
In reality, the NVFC hasn't found any instances of a lawsuit involving donated firefighting equipment. “This isn't trial attorneys' bread and butter,” Sharman says, “so all we have to do is remove the threat.”
But Angeli still has reservations. “Until some action is taken in Washington or at the state level to limit liability, Adopt-A-Fire-Department can't really take off,” he says.
For now, its donations come from larger volunteer or small career departments. Its biggest donor is the Green Bay (Wis.) fire department, which only has six companies.
Angeli and his wife, Amy Steelman, both with the Kennett Fire Company Number 1, Kennett Square, Pa., were approached by a small group of volunteer fire departments in Southern Missouri about starting a group to gather donated equipment.
So last summer they took a tour of the poverty belt, north of I-10 and south of I-70, to see these firefighters.
The firefighters weren't wearing any turnout gear, had apparatus that would or would not work, and were locally operated, not federally funded. “We were sort of shocked,” Angeli says.
Angeli and Steelman decided to pair departments based on what one had and the other needed, rather than have random donations. After nine months, they have 40 department pairs and a few dozen tractor trailer loads of donated equipment.
The pairing is done on the Web site, <<a href="http://www.fire-rescuevillage.com/adopt" target="_blank">www.fire-rescuevillage.com/adopt>, on server space donated to the program. The departments then make the exchanges and perhaps some informal liability agreements among themselves.
“We don't negotiate the deal,” Angeli says. “We're just the matchmakers.”
Like Warnick, Angeli hopes Adopt-A-Fire-Department won't be needed indefinitely. “Adopt-A-Fire-Department was never designed to be the all-inclusive fix to the problem, just a temporary one so firefighters lives are saved.”
Kayleen Schaefer is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Gear assistance programs
These volunteer fire department assistance programs are designed to help rural departments find affordable gear.
Departments are paired at <<a href="http://www.fire-rescueviliage.com/adopt" target="_blank">www.fire-rescueviliage.com/adopt> but must make their own arrangements to exchange equipment. For more information, contact Lou Angeli at 636-828-4954 or 800-607-1789.
Helping Our Own
This organization gathers the equipment then distributes it for the cost of shipping or travel. Contact Mark Warnick at 417-679-2828 or visit <<a href="http://www.helpingourown.com" target="_blank">www.helpingourown.com> for details.
VFD Helping Hands Program
Equipment is donated to the VFD Helping Hands Program, which then certifies it and distributes it to departments around Texas. The program is run by the rural fire defense section of the Texas Forest Service. For more information, call 936-639-8130.