Seward County fire to talk to public about challenges

By Robert Pierce
Southwest Daily Times – March 31, 2017

With the recent round of grass fires hitting the area, Seward County officials are looking to address some problems concerning the county’s fire department.

Those concerns will be discussed through two upcoming town hall meetings, one on April 6 at the Activity Center in Liberal and the other on April 7 at the Kismet Pavilion.

Seward County Fire Chief Andrew Barkley said the format for the meetings will be similar to ones the county hosted last year.

“We’ve sent out 1,300 postcards to the rural residents who pay our fire tax,” he said. “A lot of residents, I don’t think, understand that we are not general fund funded. We are mill levied for a fire tax funded.”

Barkley said the primary purpose of the meetings is to educate county residents on where the fire department is at this time. He said the number of the department’s personnel has not changed much.

“We’re about 20, and we’ve always been about 20,” he said. “We were 20 when I got here, maybe 21, but they’ve always stayed around 20.”

The problem, though, Barkley said, is that the fire department operated in the 21st century is not the same as those operated in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The guys that are working during the day can’t get off work anymore,” he said. “The economy has changed. They can’t get off work to respond to calls, so during the daytime hours, you’re very limited on your responders. If it’s 5 o’clock in the morning, you’re limited on your responders because everybody’s getting up to go to work.”

In past days, volunteer firefighters could be found sitting at home waiting for pagers to go off to respond to fires, but Barkley said in today’s times, fires are no longer the first priority for volunteers.

“Their first priority is their job and their family,” he said. “Times have changed, and we have to change with that. We are going to talk about daytime staffing, and we are also going to talk about what it would take to staff this department with two guys in each station 24/7 and what the cost would be with that. The residents need to know where we’re at, what we’re doing and what the plan is, and when you give them the factual information, it eliminates all the rumors and the ridiculous stuff that’s being said out there.”

Though one of the stations of the Seward County Fire Department is housed in the same building as the Liberal Fire Department, Barkley said the county department is not affected by anyone living within city limits and not owning property in rural parts of the county.

“This is for people who own property in the county,” he said. “What we’re looking at is to explain to them what it would take to put guys in our station and how much it would cost. To put guys in our station during the daytime, 8 to 5 Monday through Friday, is a $30 bump at 11 percent on $100,000. To staff our county 24/7 with two guys on duty at each station round the clock, it would be about $110 bump at 11 percent per $100,000.”

Barkley said the amount of calls his department has received this year has gone up from just the latter half of 2016.

“In 2017, we’ve run more calls in the last three months than we had in six months of last year,” he said. “The other side to that is you get 24/7 guys in there. When you have a big fire like this, when your volunteers respond, you already have three trucks there. When your volunteers respond, you get three or four more trucks. Now, you have seven or eight trucks there. Right now, the three or four volunteers you get to respond is all you get during the day. Now, you’re talking about additional resources on top of that with full-time personnel in place.”

Barkley said extra personnel could affect insurance ratings for homeowners.

“When you have staff in place at your stations and you’re able to take a year of service and show your training hours, response times, you’re going to affect your ISO rating for the county,” he said.

Having more personnel, Barkley said, could guarantee response from firefighters and emergency medical units.

“If you live out northwest of Supreme Feeders and you call for an ambulance, you’re waiting for one from Liberal,” he said. “If our station is staffed, in 10, 15 minutes, they could be to you.”

Barkley said the fire department is not drowning because of call volume, but rather having to cover 642 square miles of county.

“We have one volunteer for the north station that’s available after 5 o’clock at night,” he said. “During the day, you have nobody there, so your nearest fire protection’s coming from Satanta and here.”

The recent round of grass fires will likewise be a topic at the town hall meetings, Barkley said.

“We’re going to recap what the guys have named the Black Monday fire, which is the Road 13 fire,” he said. “We’re going to recap the Arkalon fire.”

Barkley said unlike many departments who took more than a day to put out fires around the Sunflower State, his department was able to contain the Road 13 fire within three and a half hours – with a little assistance.

“That fire was burning a thousand acres an hour,” he said. “With the help of farmers and discs, we were able to stop it, and we had no help coming to us other than from Stevens and Haskell County. Everybody else, we put in requests to the state of Oklahoma, the state of Kansas and were denied by both due to no resources available because of all the fires.”

Above all else, Barkley said having more firefighters would allow Seward County to more efficiently fight fires.

“We have to be able to try to make a stand ourself, and we have to be able to handle ourselves for three or four hours,” he said. “We have to be able to do that to survive, and we can’t do that right now with two guys on duty here.”

Barkley also said some people get the title of fire chief confused with being a firefighter, and he said the job he currently holds entails so much more than that.

“My job includes getting us resources, weather reports, making sure our guys are safe, assignments out to each waive of responding companies, accountability of our personnel, what we’ve lost, where we’re at, how we’re jumping, who’s where, who’s what, where’s the water supply, how many trucks do we have,” he said. “I have to track all that.”

Overall, Barkley said his job is to make sure his firefighters are safe and accounted for, that assistance is available and watching weather reports for wind change.

“There is so much I have to do,” he said. “If I’m on a truck fighting fire, how can I do all that? I can’t.”

The recent rains and the potential for moisture this weekend have not eliminated the likelihood for grass fires for Barkley.

“I still walk on pins and needles,” he said. “We’re supposed to get some more rain Friday night, Saturday and Saturday night, and I am hoping we’ll green up really good.”

Barkley said some residents have called for a burn ban in the county, but with a controlled burn policy in place, that is not likely to happen.

“Our residents are really good about calling in to find out what the wind’s going to do and whether or not they should burn,” he said. “Going into a burn ban ties my hands, and we can’t let people burn off tumbleweeds or anything.”


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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