Volunteer firefighters keep flame alive

MERRICOURT, N.D. - Merricourt, N.D., used to have its own fire department. Now, fires in and around the town are fought by fire departments in Ellendale, N.D., and Edgeley, N.D.

MERRICOURT, N.D. - Merricourt, N.D., used to have its own fire department. Now, fires in and around the town are fought by fire departments in Ellendale, N.D., and Edgeley, N.D.

Merricourt, a town of less than five people about 50 miles south of Jamestown, N.D., lost its fire department about three years ago because its fire chief retired and no one took over, said John Elstad, deputy fire marshal for the central region of North Dakota.

"It's never a good thing when a fire department has to close up," Elstad said.

Small-town fire departments such as Merricourt are closing not just in North Dakota but the entire Midwest, said Lois Hartman, retiring North Dakota Firefighters Association executive director.

The departments have stretched budgets, need equipment upgrades and have expansive service areas that continue to grow, she said. These challenges result in longer response times, fewer volunteers and more areas at risk.


When Merricourt's fire department disbanded, the Edgeley Volunteer Fire Department picked up some of its service area, said Greg Gibson, fire prevention officer with EVFD. That department's combined service area is greater than the areas served by firefighters in Bismarck or Grand Forks.

Fire departments such as Edgeley's receive money from each fire fought through homeowners' insurance policies or from the homeowners themselves, Gibson said. The EVFD also receives a small amount from the state and from federal programs. But it's not enough to purchase needed equipment.

Edgeley would spend additional funding on new lightweight personal protection equipment including breathing apparatuses, helmets and other new personal equipment, Gibson said.

"I should not be forced to choose between having proper safety equipment or providing essential services such as fire prevention programs due to lack of funding," he said.

EVFD's current protective gear is about 20 years old and does not meet National Fire Protection Association code, Gibson said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency and state grants play a key role in providing grants to purchase the equipment upgrades, Elstad said.

"The FEMA grants have been an excellent source for additional funds for personal firefighting equipment," he said. "The problem that arises with a fire grant is the amount of money needed to match the percent of money."

For example, a new truck costs about $180,000.


FEMA expects small departments to foot 10 percent of the bill -- or $18,000 -- almost an entire year's budget, said Alan Nitschke, a firefighter in Edgeley and chief of the Jud, N.D., fire district.

Smaller departments such as Edgeley have a difficult time receiving funds on a federal level, Elstad said. But funding can come from other places.

"I think there's unlimited resources out there, it's just a matter of asking," Elstad said.

He said grants could come from corporations, and that certain equipment companies may offer financing to some smaller departments.

The Department of Homeland Security also offers grants but the paperwork is difficult to fill out, said Nitschke.

The Streeter (N.D.) Fire Protection District is just that, a district, not a department. It receives funds from tax dollars collected by the county, Elstad said. It can't charge per fire call as Edgeley charges. Streeter became a district around 1985 after the town's rural and city departments approached city officials with the idea. The public voted in favor of the idea at a special election, he said.

Streeter has an annual budget about $12,000, compared with Edgeley's budget of $20,000. But the SFPD covers 324 square miles while EVFD covers 423 square miles.

Being a district with county funds and enlisting a professional grant writer have made Streeter one of better-equipped departments in the area, said Tim Dewald, Streeter fire chief.


All of the equipment that firefighters use is "state of the art," Dewald said.

And the professional grant writer has a 95 percent success rate, he said.

One thing small-town departments have in common is that they are run by volunteers who may have trouble finding time to look for extra funding sources.

A volunteer firefighter with a full-time job and a family just may not have the time to organize fundraisers to get the money needed for the department, Hartman said.

"The community needs to get behind that fire department and assist them with the fundraising," she said.

The community also needs to be aware of how important fire departments actually are, said Renne Loh, executive director of the North Dakota Firefighters Association.

"The fire departments are the first line of defense in North Dakota, and that is value beyond words," Loh said.

That line of defense is also in need of additional trained and enthusiastic volunteers to help battle the blazes and maybe fundraise on the side, she said.


"There's just no volunteers anymore," Nitschke said.

The Edgeley Volunteer Fire Department has a 30-man roster, but only six to eight of the same firefighters show up at fire calls, said Justin Fredenburg EVFD firefighter.

Volunteer numbers could be better in Streeter, where 15 are active firefighters, Dewald said.

"We need training and more volunteers," he said.

For Elstad, being a local firefighter shows a sense of community pride.

"I think being a member of the local fire department shows you support your community and are interested in the safety and lives of your community," he said.

The lack of volunteers could be attributed to the aging population in North Dakota, Elstad said.

'As towns shrink and populations age. there are fewer people to volunteer for the local fire department.


Now, Gibson is concerned for the future when Jud will lose its fire department and Edgeley would be forced to expand its service area once again.

Jud, a city of 67 people, only has its fire department because of Nitschke's work, Gibson said. That department will close when Nitschke wants it to, he said.

And when it does, one stretched department will have more ground to serve, Gibson said.

"That's a scenario that could very easily happen," Elstad said. "Somebody's going to have to pick up the protection."

As the population in small towns shrink and its citizens' age increases, departments such as Edgeley could be facing serious threats to remain open years down the road.

The North Dakota Firefighters Association has proposed legislation to the state for rural departments to set up "retirement funds" to help retain volunteers. But the state Legislature did not approve funding for the idea, Hartman said.

Some families have donated parts of their estates to departments who saved their lives, but it's not enough to go around, Loh said.

Junior firefighter programs have also started in some areas but have liability issues and are still early going, Hartman said.


"It's a serious problem, and I'm sorry to tell you we don't have any good answers for it," she said.

The Sun and the Herald are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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