In Marthasville, Missouri, the fire department is made up entirely of volunteers. Between its three stations, the department is responsible for covering 168 square miles including surrounding towns like Treloar and Hopewell.
Volunteer fire departments are common in rural communities. In fact, The National Fire Protection Association estimates that 65 percent of the nation’s fire departments are made up of volunteers.
Funding for volunteer fire departments is one of the biggest challenges besides managing calls. Marthasville, for example runs off a $300,000 budget, fire chief Jeff Backhaus said. Maintaining a fire truck costs about $35,000 alone, he said.
“The last thing we want is one of our pieces of apparatus not ready to go when an alarm comes in,” Backhaus said.
Luckily, the department’s funding is about to change. The department will receive extra funding through a ballot initiative that passed on April 2 that grants the department a $1.75 million bond. With it, they will build a new fire station and update their equipment. Backhaus said while other departments in the area have less funding, they try to help them out. For example, Marthasville lent its fire truck to the neighboring department, Augusta, when its fire truck was out of service.
Now, the biggest obstacle for the department is time, Marthasville assistant fire chief Sean Johnston said.
The department trains every Wednesday for three hours. Backhaus says volunteers can spend up to 10 to 20 hours a week attending trainings and meetings. All of them work full-time jobs, some as career firefighters or EMS responders.
“We have guys that are donating besides 2,000 hours a year on their regular job, they're donating another 2,000 of their life here,” Backhaus said. “For the community. For absolutely nothing.”
The department responded to 259 calls in 2018, according to the department’s annual report. Of the calls, 66 were for emergency medical services. This year, the department received 74 calls between January and March.
If a call happens in the middle of the day, it can be difficult for people to respond, Johnston said. Backhaus said he can only think of one time where no one was able to respond to a call. The amount of people who respond to a call varies, Johnston said.
“The other day we had an outdoor search and rescue for a 12-year-old girl, and we had 13 firefighters show up,” Johnston said.
Backhaus said the department is promoting itself on social media, and are actively recruiting. Right now, they have about 50 members. But many people still don’t realize that they are made up entirely of volunteers.
“A lot of people do not understand that we’re a hundred percent volunteer, especially the people that move from St. Louis county,” Backhaus said. “They think we should be here 24/7, to be at their beckon call but unfortunately that’s not the case. And around here it will not be the case for a very long time.”