Problems of a Rural Department
What does a small Kansas volunteer fire department do and what are its problems?
Whitewater is a small Kansas town of 550 population approximately 30 miles northeast of Wichita. The Whitewater Volunteer Fire Department furnishes fire protection for Whitewater and 3 1/2 surrounding townships, or 126 square miles. The farthest point in our district is 14 miles from the fire station.
The fire department is composed of 26 men over the age of 18, three junior members who are 16 and two honorary members who have been in the fire department 55 years and wish to be sidewalk firemen now. The department has one chief and two companies. Each company has an assistant chief, a captain, a lieutenant and eight firemen.
The city marshal is also the city water superintendent, who also serves as a radio man with his city patrol pickup. He puts the city water pumps on manual control if necessary and acts as a policeman at a fire. In addition to the marshal, the utility men for the electric and telephone companies answer the service calls in their trucks to take care of any wire problems and if needed, they also become fire fighters.
The junior members do not drive or ride the apparatus unless absolutely necessary, but they train on a regular basis with the firemen. By the time the juniors become 18, they know fire fighting fairly well. We have a couple of 19-year-old youths who can operate the equipment about as good as those who have been in the fire department for many years.
Two 500-gpm pumpers
The fire department equipment consists of two 500-gpm engines with 600-gallon booster tanks. One is a 1955 midship pumper and the other is a 1963 front-mount pumper. The engines are well equipped and meet the Kansas Inspection Bureau standards. Each truck carries 1100 feet of 2 1/2inch hose, 200 feet of 1 1/2-inch hose wyed on a skid load, 200 feet of 1 1/2inch preconnected hose and 150 feet of 1-inch booster hose on each of two reels. Self-contained breathing apparatus and a resuscitator are breathing equipment.
The alarm system consists of seven telephones, including one in the fire station. When someone dials the fire department, all seven telephones ring. At least one fire phone is covered at all times. The person answering a fire phone trips a siren switch near the telephone. This switch, using telephone electronics, trips a relay at the fire station that activates a 2-minute clock. The clock then activates a 5-hp siren on a water tower. The siren then blows up and down on 10-second intervals for 2 minutes.
We feel we have exceptionally quick responding firemen. As an example, a recent resuscitator call found firemen at the scene in less than 2 minutes from the time the call was received. Oxygen was being administered in less than 3 minutes from receipt of the call. Some firemen were six blocks from the fire station. They had to go to the station, check the fire phone for information, write on the board where the call was and get the truck and resuscitator to the scene, three blocks from the station.
When the so-called Kansas blizzard of ’71 was at its height, a call was received that smoke was coming from a downtown business building. Some streets had almost impassable drifts. Some firemen couldn’t get their cars out of their driveways and had to go to the fire station on foot. Within 4 minutes of the call, both trucks were at the scene. Fortunately, it was only a short in an air conditioner.
There are potential problems such as the flour mill in Whitewater. This building, between 60 and 70 years old, is over 50 X 200 feet. This includes the mill and warehouse for flour and chemical storage. This wood frame building with metal siding is three stories high with a basement and contains many electric motors. The top floor has a dry sprinkler system to which the fire department can hook up. We would be unable to reach the roof with our ladders. On one side of the mill there are two railroad sidings and the main track. Most of the time there are at least 10 box or hopper cars on the siding. If a fire had to be attacked from that side, it would create many problems, and dust explosions could be a serious threat in a fire.
The mill also has separate grain storage elevators with a capacity of almost 2 million bushels. The head house of the elevator is 120 feet high and a fire here could challenge anyone. The nearby fire hydrants can furnish 1200 gpm, and the water tower holds 50,000 gallons of water. The pumps can supply 100 gpm. At a large fire, several pumpers could make the water supply critical, although there is a river about 500 feet away that can be used.
The farms around Whitewater raise grain and feed livestock, mostly cattle and hogs. Many farmers have grain storage elevators, all of which are wood. If we receive a fire call at one of these, all we have is one engine and 600 gallons of water in the booster tank. Water supply at the scene is limited to livestock water tanks. If necessary, we can call for assistance through our mutual aid plan.
Many barns are filled with thousands of bales of hay, farm equipment, grain, etc. Several years ago a barn hit by lightning held 300,000 bales of hay, farm equipment, 500 bushels of grain, etc. The barn was almost gone before anyone noticed it. All the water in Lake Michigan wouldn’t have saved that barn. Most bams that are hit by lightning are never saved, they are almost completely engulfed in flame immediately.
Another potential problem is a commercial cattle feed lot of about 160 acres. It has an average of 30,000 head of cattle at all times and enough grain and hay to feed these cattle. That is a lot of grain and hay. There are fire hydrants and a water tower. The ranch is about 6 miles from the fire station, or 10 minutes to get a truck on the scene. They have had one dust explosion, but fortunately no fire or injuries. Again, there is a tall grain elevator and processing equipment at this ranch.
Whitewater is served by two railroads, which cause a lot of grass fires that are a potential threat to buildings. A year ago, the Rock Island had a derailment 8 miles north of Whitewater. Of the 17 cars stacked up, five had LP gas. Had there been a fire, who knows what would have happened?
Six months before this derailment, one of our fire schools had a similar wreck as a problem, and because of this classroom problem, our firemen knew what to do. The railroad brought in men who tapped the tanks, ran pipes away from the area, drained the fuel to the area and burned it.
We know we face many challenges, including a high school 4 miles from town with 300 students, faculty and custodians. The building is fire-resistive, but we all know how such buildings can burn inside under some conditions. Water here is limited. We have three schools in our fire district.
We have one heavily traveled state highway and several county highways, as well as township road, that give us highway service calls. The problems presented here are pretty much normal for any department.
How do we train? We conduct drills on the third Wednesday of each month similar to those of other fire departments, such as hose laying, nozzle practice, pump practice, ladder drill, simulated fires, etc. Our baseball park has a drainage ditch that we sometimes block with a small sand dam, then stack old tires in a pile, put gasoline and oil on water in the ditch and ignite it. When it gets rip-roaring hot, we move in to see if we can extinguish the fire. The tires present a tough fire fighting challenge.
In another drill, we take a 30-gallon barrel and cut a small hole in the bottom directly under the filler hole. We thread a cable through the holes.
The cable is strung about 5 feet high between poles at the baseball diamond. The barrel can slide from one pole to the other and it is put on one end. Five men are assigned to a pumper and stationed about 500 feet away. On a signal, they must run to the pumper, put on protective clothing, start the apparatus and make it to the barrel. Then they use a booster hose to push the barrel to the opposite end of the cable. The men are timed to see which team is the fastest.
This teaches the men how to get into protective clothing quickly, start the equipment and get the truck to the scene and in action. It also gives some competition. This same procedure is used in having the men hook up to a fire hydrant, using 1 1/2 and 2 1/2-inch layouts.
Then to have a little fun, we put the barrel in the middle of the suspended cable. Using a pumper at each end of the cable, the men make a 500 foot run, get the apparatus and booster hoses in action, and see which team can get the barrel to an end with the hose streams. Of course, the men sometimes miss the barrel and hit their opponents (on purpose, I might add). It’s a lot of fun if the teams are about equally quick in getting into action. There isn’t much fire practice here, but it sure teaches the men to get their clothing on and get the truck in action with a minimum of delay.
As often as we can, we have a fire instructor from the extension service of Kansas State University come in for a week of training. During the week, the firemen get 10 to 15 hours of special training. This is a very worthwhile program in Kansas.
Serve without pay
All members of the Whitewater Volunteer Fire Department serve without pay. The firemen prefer that any money be spent on equipment and protective clothing.
The Whitewater Fire Department budget this year is $2,625 for everything. The fire phone system alone costs about $900 a year. Then there is truck insurance, insurance for the men, fire station utility bills, building and equipment maintenance, new equipment, etc. No money is wasted, nor is any equipment purchased that isn’t felt to be necessary.
What would Whitewater’s firemen like to have? One large item would be a tanker capable of carrying 1,500 gallons of water, radios for the apparatus and a Jeep-type grass fire fighting vehicle.
Needless to say, I am proud to be chief of the Whitewater Fire Department. We may not be the best, but we think we rank among the best.