November 4, 2016 11:45:48 AM
As adequate fire response becomes increasingly relevant to Oktibbeha County residents with the county's burn ban approaching a month in effect, one Oktibbeha district fire department received grants from state and federal agencies this week that will allow it to expand firefighting efforts.
The Oktibbeha District 5 Fire Department received a $4,500 Volunteer Assistance grant awarded by the Mississippi Forestry Commission that will allow the department to equip an additional a fire truck for its service ranks. Also, a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant of $190,400 administered by the Department of Homeland Security will fund the department's volunteer future recruitment and retention efforts.
District 5 Capt. Austin Check said such grants are critical to service department enhancements.
"District 5 operates on community donations and an annual budget of $14,000 each year," Check said. "To run (the district's) two stations is about a miracle."
Check said the Volunteer Assistance grant will allow the department to outfit a six-wheel-drive truck for wildland firefighting. He said essential equipment absent from the the off-road military surplus unit the fire department acquired through the Mississippi Forestry Commision nearly a year ago has rendered it inoperable as a service vehicle. The grant will primarily be used to purchase a water pump and a hose reel for that vehicle, he said.
"Right now that truck doesn't have the ability to spray water. When you think about wildland firefighting, most of it's off the beaten path," Check said. "The truck is able to get there. We're just missing the component to turn it into an effective firefighting vehicle."
He said the truck has a 900-gallon water tank that is three times larger than the department's other brush trucks, and having the truck among the department's ranks will bolster active wildland firefighting efforts typically complemented by the Forestry Commission's "passive" techniques.
"What they normally do is cut a line. They go in with a bulldozer and (a) plow, and they physically plow around the fire until it hits the dirt and puts itself out," Check said. "What we aim to do is be able to put these things out before it comes to the point of having to do that."
He said as an efficient firefighting tool, the truck may also aid efforts to curb volunteer burnout - one of the Homeland Security SAFER grant's intended uses.
"The Forestry Commission has equipment out here in the county, but they're serving several different counties," Check said. "So sometimes you might have to wait 45 minutes to an hour for them to arrive. ...This gives us an opportunity to try to get in there and get it contained."
Recruitment and retention
Check said he is considering avenues to support District 5's roughly 30-member roster through the SAFER grant, such as creating a mileage reimbursement program for volunteers who use their personal vehicles in service to the department.
"That can be a prohibiting factor - people burning through tanks of gas," he said.
Check said the grant will also be used in recruitment marketing to educate potential volunteers on the nature of the department's work and how they can contribute.
"Eighty percent of our calls are medical calls," Check said. "People see the fire department and think we're just spraying water on flames. So (we are) getting the message out there of exactly what we do. We've got a place for everyone. If they don't like fighting fire, we can still find them a place within our organization."
Oktibbeha County Volunteer Fire Services Coordinator Kirk Rosenhan said the SAFER grant reflects the fire department's ongoing recruitment mission, and he hopes to see District 5's ranks increase soon.
"We're always happy to get support to get more volunteers (and) more trained people to serve the community," Rosenhan said. "This particular grant will serve, of course, only District 5. But that's an area where we always need more people. And we urge anybody that's interested in serving their community to give the fire department a call, and we'll get them set up to help us out."
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