CALIFORNIA, Mo. -- Members of the California City Fire Department and California Rural Fire Protection District are still mentally and emotionally recovering after a fire that caused the death of a 4-year-old boy Oct. 2 in the unincorporated McGirk community.
The tragedy was made even more acute because the fire occurred next door to the McGirk rural fire station.
Although the city and rural fire protection districts were already working with dispatch to coordinate response efforts, the incident highlighted the importance of establishing and improving the system.
Moniteau County sheriff's deputies were the first to respond to the residential fire within six minutes of the original dispatch in the late morning of Oct. 2 at 55172 State St. in McGirk. An adult on scene said one child was unaccounted for and could still be inside the burning home. Deputies attempted to go in through the front door and were met by flames. A deputy managed to enter through a window but was overcome by smoke inhalation and had to be pulled out by emergency responders.
Rural Fire Chief Shawn Merrill said rural fire district volunteers arrived at the station within eight minutes of receiving the call. According to the Missouri Division of Fire Safety incident report, the first rural firefighter to arrive was not immediately aware a child was inside. Merrill said rural firefighters did not have time to don their protective gear and quickly retrieved the fire engine from the station, spraying the structure with water within about three minutes of arriving.
Merrill said it sometimes can take only two minutes for house fires to reach the flashover point in which all combustible material in the structure will ignite.
City firefighters arrived shortly after the rural crew, already wearing protective gear. They entered the structure to retrieve the child, confronted by intense heat, and found him in the back bedroom. The 4-year-old was rushed to the hospital but did not survive due to severe smoke inhalation.
"They don't know for sure (how long the fire was burning), but with the fire marshal's investigation, they said that there was no way by the time we got there that (the boy) would survive," Merrill said. "It looks bad because it's right next to a station, and a lot of people have a misconception that if there is a fire house there there's (on-duty firefighters) in it, but that's not the case usually in rural areas. You don't have the tax base to support that."
Merrill said the event was hard on everyone, but his firefighters were holding up pretty well.
"We had a meeting afterward with everybody that responded — not just our department, but the deputies and the ambulance people and the city department," he said. "Everybody was invited, and we had one of the pastors here in town come out and talk to us, and just kind of get together and talk it over and kind of vent. I wanted to make sure that nobody was having problems that we could help with, and if they were, we could get them the help they need."
Although the volunteers realize they did everything they could, Merrill said some of the younger firefighters still carry the weight of the tragedy. "Some of the younger ones, I'm sure they've never seen that before, and it's still in the back of their mind that this could happen. We try everything we can to not let it happen, but the reality is there's going to be things that we cannot stop. It's a possibility on every fire, but you can't let that stop you from going."
Year in review
The rural district, comprised of about 32 male and female volunteers, responded to almost 300 calls with an average response time of six to seven minutes to the farthest reaches of the district, said Merrill, who also is a full-time firefighter at Lake Ozark.
California's city fire chief, Allen Smith — the only full-time paid employee of either district — said 2017 was a typical year for the department, which consists of 22 male volunteers. It responded to 493 calls with an average response time of eight minutes from receiving the call to arriving on scene. About 80 percent of the calls were medical-related incidents firefighters were dispatched to as first responders.
"We basically respond to any emergency in the city, so we are set up here with medical first responders. Some of my guys in my department are employees of Mid Mo Ambulance," Smith said.
Merrill said the rural response times have improved quite a bit over the year.
"We've been getting a few more volunteers, especially in areas where we didn't have any. We were having to respond from (California) to Clarksburg because we didn't have anybody in the Clarksburg area. Now we have three or four (volunteer firefighters) out there, and they've been cutting the response times down tremendously."
Although things are improving, Merrill said the rural district still needs more volunteers but is already running on a tight budget. The rural district will need to replace its firefighters' gear — totaling about $3,500 per firefighter — in the near future. The only budget item Merrill can pull money from is for training, putting volunteer firefighters in a difficult position.
The rural district is comprised of one main station on the east side of California and four smaller stations in Clarksburg, McGirk, Kliever, and at the intersection of Route T and MO-87. Merrill said all of the outlying stations are equipped with a fire engine and a brush truck, and the station at Kliever also houses a tanker truck. He said the placement of the stations allows firefighters to be within 5 miles of most of the rural district's reach.
The district began 2017 with $20,532.65 and received $102,036 in tax revenues, according to the California Rural Fire Protection District 2017 estimated budget report. After the year's $122,506 in expenditures such as utilities, gas, equipment and training, only $62.65 remained.
In comparison, the city's California Fire Department has $137,509 in its 2018 budget to fund a single large fire station. The rural fire district's 2018 budget had yet to be completed.
The rural district's 2017 budget report shows after $26,000 was budgeted for insurance and workman's compensation, $26,000 for new equipment, $17,806 for a new auxiliary fire station, $16,500 toward a truck purchase and many other expenditures, only $2,000 remained for training costs.
Merrill said as new equipment needs arise, the modest training budget is the only place from which funds can be pulled. "With five stations and 16 trucks to maintain, that don't leave a whole lot for training and stuff like that," he said. "(Training) is the last thing that you want to pull (funds) from, but that's the thing you have to pull from. As a volunteer department, we have to try and be professional, but (the volunteers) have to be very dedicated because we still have to have the same amount of training as what the professionals do."
Merrill said first responders are required to take a 40-hour class, with 30 hours of continuing education every three years. All volunteers are required to take 40 hours of firefighter training. The rural first responders also train for three hours at every monthly meeting, and firefighters train three hours during their meetings twice a month.
While properly funding this training is important, the district soon has to replace its air packs to keep firefighters safe on the job. Merrill estimated the 20 air packs need to be replaced by the end of 2018 and will cost $20,000, and another 20 air packs are due for replacement at the end of 2019. He said almost all of the rural district's hoses are past their recommended replacement dates, though they have passed their quality tests. He estimated the hoses will cost another $125,000.
Merrill said his applications for state and federal emergency management grants to fund new equipment were denied.
The rural volunteers have elected in the past few years to give up their gas reimbursements, helping pay for new equipment, but Merrill said private donations would be appreciated to help purchase equipment and fund training exercises between the city and rural departments.
The California city and rural fire districts are working on a cooperative project to train their volunteer firefighters together, build teamwork and more effectively fight structure fires by mutually responding to incidents in the California area.
"The fire service really does depend big time on brotherhood," Smith said. "You have to depend on these guys, and it can be a really difficult task at times."
The California Fire Department responds to incidents within city limits, and the California Rural Fire Protection District responds outside of the city within 250 square miles — almost 60 percent of Moniteau County. The departments already automatically mutually respond to motor-vehicle accidents and are working on a system to automatically dispatch firefighters from both departments to other emergencies like structure fires.
With this system, members of both departments would be contacted by dispatch to respond to structure fires in their area. For example, if a fire happens at night, the firefighters who live closest the fire can get the call and respond to the emergency. A chain of command would be established based on where the fire occurred after the first responders have worked together to address the emergency.
"We've been having fire chiefs' meetings here in Moniteau County, and everybody is kind of facing the same difficulties with manpower and the availability of people at different times," Smith said. "We are actually working on a plan to do some more automatic aid to structure fires, working with 911 to streamline some of the dispatching. It is in the planning phase right now."
Merrill said working together will help ease the burden of having a small amount of volunteer firefighters, widely dispersed in the city, rural areas and distant communities.
"I think (cooperation) is extremely important for all of us," Merrill said. "It's getting harder and harder to find volunteers anyway, so if we can get it to where we can work together, it's going to ease some of that."