When I was a young lad growing up in O’Fallon I had several opportunities to accompany my Dad to fire schools and other fire meetings in St. Louis County. I noticed when attending these meetings that several staff vehicles had license plates that used the letters F.P.D after the name of the organization. I was considered a rather bright child, but those abbreviations were confusing to me and at first I thought this was some kind of combined fire and police unit. Keep in mind that this was the 1950’s and I was not yet a “teen know it all.” So, when you don’t know something, you ask your Dad. The first thing he did was chastise me for being so “damn dumb” and not looking at the lettering on the door of the vehicle because there it clearly spelled out that this was the fire chief’s staff vehicle from the Mehlville Fire Protection District. This was my very first lesson learning about fire districts in my home state. Little did I know at the time that I was destined to spend most of my life dealing with fire districts and fire departments.
EARLY FIRE DISTRICTS AND OTHER ORGANIZATION MODELS
The original statute that created fire protection districts in Missouri was passed in 1947. The legislature at the time assumed that the only place the fire service needed to be improved was in first class counties which was the reason I saw so may different fancy fire district staff cars at meetings in St. Louis County. Currently there are 23 fire protection districts and 20 municipal fire departments in St. Louis County.
In communities all around the state, such as St. Charles County were we lived, it was up to each community to provide fire protection for the town and usually the rural area around it. This promoted the age-old discussion about why the town should provided protection for the rural area and the folks who lived in the country said, “because we come to town and buy stuff in your stores!”
St. Charles County had thirteen fire departments in the late 1950’s and early 60’s and they had formed the St. Charles County Fire Protection Association and developed areas of coverage for each department. With the exception of the City of St. Charles, which was funded by city taxes, the rest sold membership or as they were normally called “fire tags”. The departmental areas of coverage established in those early days are more or less the legal boundaries of several very successful fire districts in that county today, including my home town of O’Fallon.
I spent many Sunday afternoons of my youth, going door-to-door selling fire tags for five dollars, which paid the membership for the homeowner for a year. This was a very common funding program for most of the fire departments in out-state Missouri, along with fundraisers like street dances, turkey shoots, chili suppers and any other activities that could raise a buck.
In the early and mid 1960’s I had completed my education and got a real job, training firefighters for the University of Missouri. After being in Columbia for a short period of time, the Boone County Fire Department was being formed and I fell in with that strange group of CB radio nuts that started that movement. Again I found us going door to door in rural Boone County selling, you guessed it, fire tags for five bucks for fire protection. One would thing in that time span; we could have at least started at ten bucks! That funding source continued until the voters were able to approve the formation of the Boone County Fire Protection District on July 11, 1970.
I can clearly remember, as a young fire instructor, traveling to the Lake Ozark area, where fire departments were working with worn out, used equipment. Some departments even stored apparatus at firefighters places of business because they didn’t have funding for decent fire stations.
RELIEF AT LAST
Finally in 1968 and 1969 the rest of Missouri got funding relief for fire protection with the passage of Missouri Revised Statute 321 and a surge of activities and lots of fire district elections took place, and the rest is history.
It is my opinion that the fire district movement in Missouri was the best decision the legislature and taxpayers ever made for the improvement of life safety for its citizens and firefighters.
Based on statistics from the office of the State Fire Marshal, there are 869 total fire departments registered in Missouri. Of that number, 374 are tax supported fire protection districts.
Based on my previous description of departments in the Lake Ozark area, go to the websites for the current Osage Beach Fire Protection District, under the leadership of Chief Jeff Dorhauer or the Mid County Fire District with Chief Scott Frandsen at the helm, and see the difference. These are two examples of the monumental changes that have taken place because fire districts have the resources to provide protections our citizens deserve.
My hometown of O’Fallon and my ole stompin’ grounds of Boone County now both have epic organizations with multi-million dollar budgets.
To further make my point about fire district’s impact on an area, I want to feature one of my favorite and in my judgment, one of the best organized and managed districts in the State. It is unique in that it completely surrounds one of the hottest tourist spots in the nation, Branson, MO. Formed by a vote of the people on November 4, 1982, WTCFPD covers 212 square miles of Western Taney County. There are around 25,000 people that live in the district but the district staff deals with over seven million tourist who visit the Branson area annually.
The district, under the very able leadership of Fire Chief Chris Berndt and a career staff of a half dozen, coordinate an army of well-trained volunteer officers and firefighters, including a dozen cadets. From 14 thru 18 years of age.
Unique protection and response challenges are posed in this area along with regular fire responses, including protecting densely populated areas with condos, water emergencies on Table Rock Lake and other waterways, wildland interface issues, and very rural coverage areas. Twelve fire/rescue stations provide coverage for the district, along with some very innovative apparatus designs. A fireboat is housed at State Park Marina on Table Rock lake that can provide a near lake water supply for land based apparatus and rescue and recovery activities on the lake. The district works closely with the water patrol division of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and mutual aide with their neighboring department, Southern Stone County Fire District and their marine division.
The district proudly serves residents of Bull Creek, Hollister, Kirbyville, Merriam Woods, Mincy, Ridgedale, Rockaway Beach, Walnut Shade and the unincorporated areas of Western Taney County. Without the services of a fire district, none of these communities could afford even minimal fire services on their own.
In 1978, then Branson Fire Chief Earnie Braswell and other interested citizens were determined to improve fire services in the area and worked to form the Branson-Rockaway Fire District, which followed the Branson School District boundaries. In the early 1980’s there was a need to improve protection for the Oakmont area and the Oakmont Fire District was formed.
In November of 1982, voters formed the WTCFPD, which included the Oakmont and Branson-Rockaway Districts excluding the cities of Branson and Hollister and some of the Hollister rural area. The district officially began operation on January 1, 1983 with Klein Calvert as the first fire chief. On October 15, 2003 the district and the Hollister Fire Department merged, making the district Hollister’s Fire Department. Mark Gordon, Ron Smith and Greg Strahm followed Chief Calvert through the next several years as leaders of the district.
On October 16, 1986 the first career Fire Chief was hired by the district. Chief Bob Hasbrook became the full time fire chief. Bob had been a long time member of the Neosho Fire Department and a very dedicated part time instructor for the Missouri Fire and Rescue Institute. We worked together on lots of awesome projects in Southwest Missouri before and after he became the fire chief and I have been lucky to call him a friend. When he departed Taney County in July 1994 he became the fire chief in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and retired from that position a few years ago.
Chief Chris Berndt assumed the position of fire chief on July 1, 1994 and continues to serve, wearing two hats, also serving as the emergency management director for all of Taney County.
UNIQUE EQUIPMENT AND INNOVATIVE FACILITIES
Chris brought with him a huge storehouse of information and ideas from other departments on which he had served. It was obvious upon his arrival that the board members wished to expand from their present six fire stations to twelve. As a new chief, he also faced the challenges of making changes in a department in which he was the “new guy.”
Extensive discussions were held with the crews at all six stations and it was originally thought that all stations needed an engine, a tanker, a brush rig and rescue vehicle. The reality of the situation was the district could not fund that many vehicles and there was also the issue of enough folks to get them out and on the road when they were dispatched.
Without making this story longer than the entire newsletter, we can report that a newly designed pumper/tanker concept was born with additional brush gear and minimal rescue gear on board. This apparatus design has become the standard for the district without compromising attack and protection. The first of these combo units was delivered in 1996 and now eight of the twelve stations are operating such units.
For a number of years the district has also used a fire station design that has greatly expanded protection for their citizens. When stations were added or renovated, living quarters for volunteer firefighters were included. Having occupants in the station greatly reduced the response time. Although this concept is used in other districts in the state, Western Taney has taken the idea to another level. Apartments are being added to some stations so that families can be station occupants.
MEDICAL RESPONSE IMPROVED
Western Taney Fire works closely with the Taney County Ambulance District to provide expanded, advanced life support responses. In May of this year the fire district received their newly issued Emergency Medical Response Agency License from the State of Missouri. The new licensure now allows paramedics who are employed by or volunteer with the fire district to give life saving medications and perform advanced procedures on those suffering from medical and traumatic emergencies.
This is the type of forward thinking that takes place in so many of the fire districts in our state. Thousands of dedicated full time employees and volunteers are provided with the tools, education, and equipment needed to protect their citizens because of the expanded fire district statute.