Volunteer Firefighters Extinguish Flames but Ignite Security
The Boone County Fire Protection District truly lives up to its motto, “A Helping Hand.” The fire district is comprised of 200 dedicated, well-trained volunteers who provide fire protection and emergency medical services to residents of Boone County. This is the story of the BCFPD’s early years and how it became the organization it is today.
The Central Missouri Radio Squad Fire Department
By Katarina Sostaric
Yellow, not red, is the color of the Boone County Fire Protection District’s engines.
When they fly by you racing down I-70, lights flashing, the men and women in the truck are doing something they love, and they are doing it for free. BCFPD has over 200 volunteer firefighters.
A half century ago, the fire protection service was a handful of radio enthusiasts with an old panel truck, an abandoned chicken house and the desire to protect their neighbors.
After the tragic death of a woman in a house fire in 1963, members of the Central Missouri Radio Squad, as they were called, took it upon themselves to serve as the county’s fire protection service.
John Wilke and Larry Wilson joined the Central Missouri Radio Squad Volunteer Fire Department in the 1960s, and still work with the fire district. They have seen the changes the organization has experienced since its inception.
“In Centralia, we had no breathing apparatus,” Wilson said. “And the fire chief said to me, ‘You’re not a man unless you breathe the smoke.’”
Volunteers lacked reliable communications. After they were contacted and told the location of the emergency, volunteers were on their own.
“When I left the house, I didn’t know if I was going to end up at the right place or not,” Wilson said.
“When I joined, they said, ‘There’s the fire truck—four gears—go forward. Go. And put the wet stuff on the red stuff. And don’t break anything.’ Those were my instructions,” Wilke said.
The Radio Squad volunteers had minimal training and a simple breathing apparatus — primitive compared to today’s specialized equipment and extensive contextual-based training.
“Our toys and tools are more expensive,” Wilke said. “They offer more capability, and they’re paid for by the taxpayers, rather than in our era when the volunteers would actually dig in their pockets to buy the equipment that we needed.”
The Radio Squad volunteers became the Boone County Fire Protection District in 1970.
“The public realized that they were no longer giving just to a bunch of crazy radio operators that had a fire truck, but they were expecting—they were demanding—the services and demanding enhancement of the services,” Wilke said. “So we came to realize that we would need new funding sources, and the only plausible way this could be done was to form a fire protection district, which is a governmental entity, and actually acquire funds through tax money.”
The Boone County Fire Protection District
Today, the BCFPD includes 14 stations covering 500 square miles.
Niemeyer, Wilke, Wilson and Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp now participate in an organization that has several facets of safety and rescue services.
Blomenkamp estimates that 72 percent of the BCFPD’s calls are EMS- or vehicle-related accidents, so the fire district is equipped to handle more than fires.
Missouri Task Force 1, which is a division of the BCFPD, can be deployed in the event of a national emergency. The team helped with rescue efforts after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Joplin tornado.
The BCFPD also has programs for fire and accident prevention.
“We give away free smoke detectors if people need them,” Blomenkamp said. “If we go into a house for a medical emergency, and they don’t have one, we carry them on our fire trucks. We’ll put them in their house for them.”
The BCFPD also established Boone County’s first building and fire codes. The BCFPD developed the Survival Kids program in 1994, in which volunteer firefighters teach fourth graders about fire safety, firearm safety, bicycle safety and how to treat burns. Versions of this program are taught throughout the world.
Students as Volunteer Firefighters
Wilke was a student at MU in 1966 when he became a volunteer firefighter. Many of the current BCFPD volunteers are students. Volunteers can live at the fire station for free and are able to immediately respond to emergencies. Some move on to careers unrelated to fire service, while others use their training to work paid positions in other fire departments
Captain Jay Niemeyer of County Fire Station 1 began his career as a student at MU. He lived at the fire station to ease the burden of his student loans.
“I guess the bug bit me, and I found out this is what I really wanted to do, was to be a firefighter,” Niemeyer said. He is now a paid fire chief for Jefferson City.
The Heart of a Volunteer Firefighter
The women and men who make this organization flourish are unpaid. They have full-time jobs in addition to the fire district. Wilke worked in the insurance industry, and Wilson worked for a telephone company. Blomenkamp explained the difficulties and sacrifices that come with being a volunteer firefighter.
“When you become a volunteer firefighter, it’s not just you,” Blomenkamp said. “It’s the entire family, and it’s a true lifestyle change to be a volunteer firefighter. It’s not just something that you do haphazardly.”
He described situations in which his children had to wait to open Christmas presents and family meals were delayed when Blomenkamp had to respond to a call. He mentioned the unusually high divorce rate that seems to plague firefighters at the BCFPD. But there are positive sides as well when it comes to family.
“The success of this organization probably is attributable to the wives and children of the firefighters with their tolerance and their participation,” Wilke said. “And please don’t accept that it was just the firefighters that made this thing happen. It was the support of their wives.”
“You either love the fire service, or you don’t,” Wilson said.
Wilson and Wilke said they believe that all the time they have dedicated has been worth the sacrifice.
“Believe me, we probably haven’t received a dime,” Wilke said. “But what we have received, at least in my career with the fire district, has been a fortune. You can’t quantify it.”