Aging community compounds South Hutch fire problems

By Michael Stavola
Hutchinson News – April 10, 2017

The only thing known as South Hutchinson residents grapple to find a solution for the fire department: Nobody is getting younger.

The aging community makes it harder to find able-bodied volunteers for the South Hutchinson Fire Department, while making the people they serve more likely to need the services of first responders such as EMS and fire.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age in South Hutch in 2000 was 42.7 and in 2010, 47.7. In the latest year available, 2015, the bureau estimates the median age to be 50.1.

In comparison, Hutchinson has gone from 37.1 (2000) to 37.8 (2010) and an estimated median age of 38.1 in 2015.

No state law restricts a volunteer’s age, according Kansas State Firefighters Association President Kevin Flory, who recalled Sheridan County had a volunteer in his 90s up until he retired last year. But, he acknowledged the restrictions age has to fighting fire.

Volunteer’s response time is also at the discretion of the fire department, Flory said.

“Specific areas struggle” to find volunteers, he said. “Some (departments), if they can get a warm body, they’ll take it.”

For South Hutchinson Fire Chief Mike Patterson, that warm body must live within a 10-minute drive of the station, which translates to about 17th Street in Hutchinson.

The SHFD is a combination department, with volunteers and part-timers. About a third of the calls, Patterson said, comes when the daily rotation of three part-time people are on from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Those personnel make $15 an hour.

All other times, the department depends on volunteers, who are actually paid $20 per call. The mix of 27 volunteers and part-timers Patterson called the “bare minimum.”

The majority of the roughly 380 department’s annual responses are for things like chest pain and require less people to respond. But, for the 15 or so times a year the department’s staff is alerted for a building fire, Patterson requires at least 10 people.

“Our primary mission is firefighting,” he said. “So that is what we base our staffing on. We need to be able to assemble 10 people in 10 minutes, 90 percent of the time.”

Those standards, along with South Hutchinson’s water system for fire, earned the department an Insurance Service Office rating of 3. In the 10-point scale, 1 is the best.

Patterson said the Hutchinson Fire Department also has a rating of 3. Although, combination fire departments are weighed differently. The insurance rating can save taxpayers money by lowering the cost of coverage.

Looking Ahead

Many residents attended a meeting earlier this week to discuss the future of the department.

One option, so far, is increasing property taxes for a new station (estimated between $850,000 to $1 million) and expanding department personnel. The new building would include housing and allow the department to have overnight staffing at the station.

The lower end would require about a 3.6-mill tax increase, or about a $35-a-year jump in taxes for the owner of the city’s average $83,000 home.

Other options include keeping the status quo or contracting HFD for all fire services, which would cost an estimated $486,000 annually compared to South Hutchinson’s budget of $403,000.

In the last option, the department would sell its five pieces of equipment: A pumper truck, ladder truck, a converted military vehicle, rescue truck and Polaris Ranger for wildfires.

At the meeting, one person suggested going back to an all-volunteer system.

“That’s why we are in the position we are in,” Patterson said. “Because we couldn’t maintain the volunteer system prior to 2013.”

Committed volunteers are hard to come by, he said, and most people change their mind after finding out about the training and schooling.

The department will take unqualified volunteers under the notion they get certified for EMT and Fire 1 within a year. The Fire 1 class costs the department about $950, he said. Additionally, there is paid monthly and quarterly training.

Discussion at the meeting went toward a public referendum or another city hall meeting.

Nothing definitive has been set.

State outlook on volunteer fire departments

According to the Kansas Insurance Department, the state has a total of 15,423 firefighters. Of those, 12,070 are volunteers and 3,353 are career firefighters.

“Lots of (small) departments in the state of Kansas are covered by all volunteer departments,” Kansas State Firefighters Association President Kevin Flory said. “And that’s the under 5,000 population towns.”

Most departments, he said, start as volunteer and move to career as the city grows.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “it boils down to what taxpayers are willing to support.”


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

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