Record number of calls cost Anderson County more, injure Colony firefighter

By Vickie Moss
Anderson County Review – April 22, 2014
Submitted by Newz Group Clipping Service – April 28, 2014

The county’s top fire chief is scratching his head trying to determine the cause of a spring fire season that cost the county 55 percent more than usual, and resulted in serious injuries to a Colony volunteer firefighter.

JD Mersman, Anderson County Emergency management director, keeps getting asked the same question again and again: “Why have there been so many grass fires this year?”

It’s a question he doesn’t really know how to answer. Sure, it’s been windy and dry. But there have been many years when conditions were similar, and the call volume wasn’t quite so high. A burn ban was in effect for many of the worst days when the National Weather Service forecasted high winds and low humidity.

“I’ve sat down and really tried to figure it out, but I don’t know,” Mersman said. “I just can’t put my finger on it.”

Statistically, this spring has brought a record number of fire calls in at least the past 15 years, Mersman said. Between Jan. 1 and March 31, fire units in the county responded to 298 calls. Of those calls, 85 percent have been for grass fires. In a typical year, those same units will respond to a total of about 400 calls.

The cost of their response for that time period was $55,000, including fuel, equipment repairs and miscellaneous equipment. For each fire call, the responding department receives $50; individual firefighters are volunteers and are not paid for their efforts. Fire departments typically use the money to pay for things like department shirts or equipment.

The exception is the Garnett Rural and City Fire Departments. Firefighters in those departments operate under a different contract with the City of Garnett and receive $15 per call, paid to the responding firefighter at the end of each quarter.

The financial impact of the increased calls means the county has spent about 55 percent more on firefighting this year than it spent at the same point last year. Mersman said although the call volume is high, the department plans for such an event when planning its budget, and may need to push back some long-term projects and equipment upgrades. But the high call volume has taken its toll on equipment and various types of firefighting apparatus.

“The condition and terrain our brush trucks are placed into is less than ideal. Breakdowns and repairs happen, and our commissioners understand that,” Mersman said, adding that he appreciates the efforts made by the county’s maintenance crews in the road department.

The busy spring also has taken a toll on firefighters, although Mersman said the county has been fortunate to have only a couple of incidents that resulted in injury to firefighters. Early in the season, one firefighter sustained burns to his arms. Another, Sarah McDaniel, was driving to a fire scene near Colony March 17 when she left the roadway and struck a tree. She sustained broken bones and is recovering from her injuries.

“She does have a long road ahead of her,” Mersman said.

Such incidents are covered by the county’s insurance; although firefighters are volunteers, once they respond to a call they fall under the umbrella of the county’s coverage, Mersman said.

Every fire department in the county has been called to at least a dozen calls. Garnett and Colony, which cover the largest area and populations, have responded to the most calls. Mersman said calls break down with 77 for Garnett; 71 for Colony; 32 for Welda; 29, Greeley; 27, Westphalia; 26, Harris; 24, Kincaid; and 12 for Bush City.

“There have been several days when units responded from one call to the next to the next. It has been so busy,” Mersman said. “Our firefighters work jobs and have families outside the fire department. Responding to the amount of calls these firefighters have requires them to take time away from their jobs and lose out on time with their families. Our firefighters are truly dedicated. I can’t say thank you enough to them.”

In addition to the firefighters, Mersman also gave credit to dispatchers at the Anderson County Communications Center who help direct firefighters to the scene, and to the Fire Department Auxiliary and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) who bring food and water to help firefighters during the calls.

Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster

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