Richmond Register, Ky.
Oct. 7—Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series featured in the Register, which will highlight volunteer fire departments in Madison County.
Fire Safety and Prevention Week is Oct. 3 through Oct. 9, and its goal is to educate the public on tips to keep their home safe from a blaze or fire-related incident.
When a call comes in to a fire or wreck in the rural areas of Madison County, it is typically volunteer firefighter stations who respond to the call.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, 67% of American firefighters are volunteers — or 745,000 individuals.
One such volunteer station is the Waco Volunteer Fire Department (WVFD) in Waco, which consists of 26 volunteers.
Volunteer firefighters have a long history in the United States.
According to the Firefighter Foundation, George Washington, the future first President of the United States, was a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1774, as a member of the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Company, he bought a new fire engine and gave it to the town, which was its very first. President Benjamin Franklin also was a volunteer firefighter in his earlier years. He helped create the first fire department in Philadelphia in 1736.
The United States did not have government-run fire departments until around the time of the Civil War. Prior to this time, private fire brigades competed with each other to be the first to attend a fire, because insurance companies paid brigades to save buildings. Underwriters also employed their own Salvage Corporations who repaired the fire damage.
In Madison County, the WVFD was the first to settle and open their doors in 1968 as a county department. It was founded by four men including: Walter Cornelison, Harold Botner Sr. (former county judge executive), Jimmy McKinney and Elkin Ford.
According to the longest serving member of the WVFD, Ohmer Gabbard, 73, of Madison County, the founders — who he worked with directly — would be proud of where their staff is today.
“They would just be so proud,” Gabbard said. “This is a great group.”
Many of the men and women serving the department have been doing so for years with one simple goal: to help the community.
“I love serving the community, and being a volunteer firefighter is a great way to do that,” said Lt. Tim Schlomann who has been with the volunteer department for six years.
Another volunteer, Thomas Petitt, was 16-years-old when he started. He said he wanted to help his community, as well as complete his dream of being a firefighter.
In addition to their obvious calls to douse fires and assist with accidents, a large portion of the WVFD’s time is consumed with helping the community in other ways, as well as fundraising to keep their facility afloat.
Fundraising and funding
Assistant Chief Jason Rawlins said fundraising and money in every volunteer department are one of the hardest parts of the job.
The department receives some funding assistance from federal grants, $16,000 from the Madison County Fiscal Court, as well as $11,000 from the state to purchase equipment. With a budget between $60,000 to $70,000 a year, the volunteers are tasked with not only fire fighting, but raising the remainder of the money to keep their doors open.
If the department did not do fundraising, the assistant chief said they would only be able to operate on $21,000 a year — which could only cover the upkeep on their five trucks.
“We have electric bills, water bills, maintenance for the trucks and we give a lot back to the community,” he said.
In fact, Rawlins stated around 70% of the volunteers’ time is taken up in money-raising efforts with nearly 1,000 hours of fundraising done annually. Some events include the tractor and truck pull which brought in almost $5,000 of profitin 2021.
“We put in thousands of hours of fundraising,” Rawlins said. “We have bingo every Monday night and that starts at five o’clock and we are lucky to be done at 11 p.m. So that is six hours every Monday night, not counting going out here and getting donations, sponsorships for the truck pulls and tractor pulls. Our guys put in thousands of hours every year…. Our guys do at least 12 to 15 hours a week in fundraising.”
In addition to this, the department has to find outlets to help fund themselves including assisting other agencies like the Madison County Coroner’s Office with the transport of bodies.
Previously, the Madison County Rescue Squad would transport deceased persons. Since the squad dissolved, the Waco Fire Department took the job to help make some money. The amount paid differs on where they are required to travel in the county, as well as the state.
They have assisted on more than 200 runs in the past year.
“I think we have made almost $9,000 in a year and a half. It is a different price every time,” Rawlins said. “It’s not a fun job, but it puts money back into the fire department to purchase the things that we need.”
Despite their efforts to stay afloat for themselves, the department helps, not only give back to the community in different ventures, but they also save the county almost $1 million annually in payroll taxes alone, according to Rawlins.
Madison County Judge Executive, Reagan Taylor, agreed.
“…Our volunteers work and live in the communities they serve and are often the first on the scene,” Taylor said. “They are well-trained and a huge benefit to the citizens of Madison County and even allow homeowners to have better ISO ratings which improves home insurance premiums. As our population continues to grow, we are grateful for our volunteer fire departments and their partnership with Chief Gray to provide the best possible service to Madison Countians. Through our financial support, assistance with grants and collaboration, it is ultimately better for our citizens and that’s always our priority.”
Nationally, volunteer fire departments save local communities approximately $37 billion per year according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“Horrible,” Rawlins said of the department’s retention rates. “It’s horrible.”
Of their 21 members, Rawlins said about eight to 10 people show up and do it all.
“That is not just our problem,” he said.
According to a survey from the Volunteer Retention Research Report conducted in August 2020 by the National Volunteer Fire Council, current and former members show that over two thirds of respondents feel their departments have (or had) a problem with volunteer retention.
This includes nearly 70% of current department leadership. Additionally, nearly half of all current volunteers have considered leaving the fire service at some point for reasons, such as lack of support and flexibility in juggling volunteer responsibilities with other life commitments, the realities of volunteering changed or didn’t meet the expectations that were set before signing up, lack of clear expectations of how much time and effort will be required each week or month for meetings and training, or a department atmosphere full of cliques and groups that exclude others, the survey states.
“It is a lot to ask these guys to leave their families at three o’clock in the morning to take these calls and pick these bodies up and on top of that you have to ask these guys to do all the fundraising, Bingo every Monday night, and it is a lot to ask….If we paid them, it would be different,” Rawlins said. “They will be here. They are volunteering their time, you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do.”
Despite this, many of the Waco volunteers have been there a number of years and say the bond forged between is similar to that of a big family. It has to be, the volunteers agree, to balance not only their volunteer duties, but a home life as well as a full-time day job.
“We fight like cats and dogs,” Rawlins laughed.
Kyle Barrett, who started at the department at the age of 15 in 2005, said how the group balances it all is “the million dollar question.”
“We make time,” said Chief Brandon French.
“There are times we don’t want to get out of the bed at 3 a.m. in the morning and have regular work at six o’ clock,” Rawlins followed up. “But if we didn’t do it, who’d do it?”
Barrett said the biggest thing is the brotherhood.
“When the tone drops at two o’clock in the morning, you think, ‘Aw I don’t want to do this,’ but then you know that Jason is coming, Derrick is coming, Britches is coming, you got all these people you know who are counting on you regardless. Regardless of whatever job you are doing, there is a job on the fire scene to do and you know these people are coming and you don’t want to let them down. It literally has to be in your blood.”
For more information visit 3852 New Irvine Rd, Waco, Kentucky 40385 or call 859-369-7301. Donations to the fire department can be sent to P.O. Box 190, Waco, 40385.
In addition, weekly Bingo is held every Monday night beginning at 7 p.m. at Jackpot Charity Bingo located at 3183 Irvine Road.
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