Some Small Town Fire Departments in North Dakota Forced to Close

November 6, 2009

The town of Merricourt, N.D., used to have its own fire department. Now, fires in and around the town are fought by fire departments in Ellendale and Edgeley.

Merricourt, a town of less than five people about 50 miles south of Jamestown, lost its fire department about three years ago because its fire chief retired and no one took over, said John Elstad, deputy fire marshal for central North Dakota.

“It’s never a good thing when a fire department has to close up,” Elstad said.

Small-town fire departments are closing across the Midwest, said Lois Hartman, the retiring North Dakota Firefighters Association executive director.

The departments need more money and equipment and they have expansive service areas that continue to grow, she said. These challenges result in longer response times, fewer volunteers and more areas at risk.

When Merricourt’s fire department disbanded, the Edgeley Volunteer Fire Department picked up some of its service area, said Greg Gibson, Edgley’s fire prevention officer. That department’s combined service area is greater than the areas served by firefighters in Bismarck or Grand Forks.

Fire departments such as Edgeley’s receive money from each fire fought through homeowners’ insurance policies or from the homeowners themselves, Gibson said. The Edgeley Fire Department also receives a small amount from the state and from federal programs, but not enough to purchase the equipment it needs.

The department’s current protective gear is about 20 years old and does not meet the National Fire Protection Association code, Gibson said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency and state grants can help pay for equipment upgrades, Elstad said.

“The problem that arises with a fire grant is the amount of money needed to match the percent of money,” he said.

For example, a new truck costs about $180,000.

FEMA expects small departments to foot 10 percent of the bill – or $18,000 – almost an entire year’s budget, said Alan Nitschke, a firefighter in Edgeley and chief of the Jud fire district.

Elstad said grants could come from corporations, and certain equipment companies may offer financing to some smaller departments.

The Department of Homeland Security also offers grants but the paperwork is difficult to fill out, Nitschke said.

The Streeter Fire Protection District is just that, a district, not a department. It receives funds from tax dollars collected by the county, Elstad said. It cannot charge per fire call as Edgeley charges.

Streeter became a district around 1985 after the town’s rural and city departments approached city officials with the idea. The public voted in favor of the idea at a special election, Elstad said.

Streeter has an annual budget about $12,000, compared with Edgeley’s budget of $20,000. Streeter’s district covers 324 square miles while the Edgeley Fire Department covers 423 square miles.

Being a district with county funds and enlisting a professional grant writer made Streeter one of better-equipped departments in the area, said Tim Dewald, the Streeter fire chief. The professional grant writer has a 95 percent success rate, he said.

A volunteer firefighter with a full-time job and a family just may not have the time to organize fundraisers to get the money needed for the department, Hartman said.

“The community needs to get behind that fire department and assist them with the fundraising,” she said.

The Edgeley Volunteer Fire Department has a 30-man roster, but only about eight of the same firefighters show up at fire calls, said Justin Fredenburg, one of the firefighters.

Volunteer numbers could be better in Streeter, where 15 are active firefighters, Dewald said.

“We need training and more volunteers,” he said.

For Elstad, being a local firefighter shows a sense of community pride.

“I think being a member of the local fire department shows you support your community and are interested in the safety and lives of your community,” he said.

The lack of volunteers could be attributed to the aging population in North Dakota, Elstad said.

Gibson worries that Jud will lose its fire department some day, forcing Edgeley to expand its service area once again.

Jud, a city of 67 people, has its fire department only because of Nitschke’s work, Gibson said. That department will close when Nitschke wants it to, he said.

And when it does, one stretched department will have more ground to serve, Gibson said.

Junior firefighter programs have started in some areas but liability issues still must be resolved, Hartman said.

“It’s a serious problem, and I’m sorry to tell you we don’t have any good answers for it,” she said.

Information from: The Jamestown Sun,

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