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Who Will Rescue Rural America?

Volunteers are the life­blood of rural America. Nationally,
72% of fire departments are all volun­teers. It's even higher in rural states.

Many, like Lynn Kirschbaum, Glen Haven, Wisconsin, are
farmers. Kirschbaum joined the fire department in this township of 480 in 1988.
The photo above shows members of his team. "When I was recruited, we had
32," he says. "We're down to 22."

In July, the department gained its first recruit since
Kirschbaum became fire chief in 1999: his 18-year-old son, Tyler.

Glen Haven isn't unusual. Between 1984 and 2006, the number
of vol­unteer firefighters across the U.S. fell by 8%, according to the
National Fire Protection Association. Nearly 50% of fire volunteers were age 40
or older in 2005, compared to 37% in 1987.

The rural all-volunteer fire and rescue department is an
endangered institution. The problem began in the 1980s when the farm crisis
uprooted the next crop of potential volunteers. Off-farm jobs also have cut the
ranks of farmers available to come to the defense of friends and neighbors.

Today, more stringent state training mandates are igniting a
new hot spot.

"When I started, there was little training
required," Kirschbaum says. "Now firefighters need 60 hours. It's
getting to be a larger problem, and it's driving young people away."

The situation also hits close to home for my community of
Pilot Mound, Iowa, population 199. Sean Whalen breathed new life into the fire
department when he moved here 15 years ago. He's funded a pumper and a tanker
truck with USDA grants and local trust dollars.

But Whalen is concerned. Effective July 1, Iowa firefighters
are required to complete 84 hours of specific training for structural
firefighting. And 24 hours of annual training must be logged to conduct any
firefighing activity.

No one can dispute that firefighting is dangerous, and most
agree that train­ing is essential. About 50 people recently attended a meeting
to discuss forming a recruitment committee for the Pilot Mound fire department
and more cross-training with other departments.

In Iowa, the state pays for required training. Human capital
– not money – is the critical shortfall. What can be done?

Some states, such as Colorado and Nebraska, have laws to
prevent employ­ers from punishing workers who leave to respond to fire and
rescue emergencies.

Other departments use a cadet or junior program to recruit
high school students. (They can't enter burning buildings.)

In southwest Wisconsin, a regional technical rescue team of
volunteers was formed in 2003 to assist local depart­ments with complex fire
and rescue calls.

Show Your Appreciation

Funny anecdotes about fire depart­ments are a dime a dozen.
Years ago, during a Rocky Mountain oyster feed at the local restaurant, a
grease fire flared. There was no need to sound the alarm: the entire fire
department was there.

But firefighters deserve our respect, and more support than
simply showing up at the annual gravy-and-biscuit breakfast.

When my family's hog facility went up in flames,
firefighters also fought the bit­ter cold. Church pews emptied as women made
coffee to warm the rescue team.

Now it's time for rural residents to come to the rescue of
the lo­cal fire department.

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