Answering the call: community steps up to lift fire district by bootstraps
INSPIRATION POINT -- Two years ago, 100 residents of the Beaver Lake area gathered at the fire hall to confront a crisis. Down to a handful of active volunteers, the local fire district was barely hanging on, and the rumors were flying that the district was failing.
The truth: the district was in good shape financially, but personnel, equipment and public involvement were in short supply.
"We had one vehicle that worked," said Jim Mautte, "and that was borrowed from Berryville."
Mautte is a former firefighter who put his retirement on hold to lead a revival of the Inspiration Point Rural Fire Protection District, which serves the Beaver Lake area from Anglers Grill to the county line. With community support mobilized by the meeting, the fire district is now back on its feet and facing a new challenge: to lower the district's fire insurance premium rating from a 9 to a 6 or 7, which could cut the cost of home insurance in half.
"We've come a long way," Mautte said. "There's a lot of work to be done, but we're bound and determined to do it."
But two years ago, there almost wasn't a fire district to save. The minimum number of volunteers -- six -- were on the roles, but the district could barely muster enough volunteers to respond to a call. The newly-elected board of commissioners met weekly for three months to assess the situation, Mautte said. One of the first things they heard: "Let's double the dues," referring to the $60 assessment per residence for fire control.
"I said, 'Let's see if we can live within the budget,'" Mautte said.
But money wasn't the problem. Lack of equipment maintenance, training and public awareness was. The first job of the commissioners: to get a handle on their role, Mautte said, which was made easier by having attorney Kristi Kendrick on the board. Then the commissioners turned their attention to personnel and equipment. The first problem was solved by residents who came foward after the meeting -- Ed Thompson, Sam Ward, Lynn McKenzie, Robert Magness, Gene Chapman, Justin Capps, George Coffee -- and signed up for firefighting. Others, including Bill Brown and Pat Scharf, signed up for traffic control.
"I can tell you how we did it," Mautte said of the turn-around. "We've got good people."
Mautte, a firefighter with the district for 10 years, is an accredited training officer, so was able to provide state-required training: 24 hours a year (two hours a month) plus 16 hours of formal training. The formal training can also be done by sending people to the fire academy in Lincoln or bringing in a teacher, he said. Neighboring fire districts in Grassy Knob, Eureka Springs and Holiday Island provided support and equipment.
"We trained 80 hours per person the first year," Mautte said.
The all-volunteer district now has four
emergency medical technicians and four emergency medical responders. Tom Kavanagh, a former firefighter, is fire chief. He and Bob Norman got "dragged back in" after the community meeting, Mautte said. Jason Sprenger, son of former chief Larry Sprenger, is assistant chief. Jason was appointed fire chief four years ago.
"He was the senior firefighter at the time," Mautte said.
That's when Jim Simmons, now a commissioner and firefighter, moved to Beaver Lake and wanted to get involved in the fire district but "couldn't find it," he said. Margie Thompson, who leads the traffic control committee, said she volunteered after the meeting for one reason: she wanted a fire department. She and three other traffic controllers are now stepping up their game, and have finished all but the wildland fire training to qualify as firefighters.
"It's exciting," Thompson said, "and you feel like you're doing a good deed for xyour community."
The district invested in equipment, and now has two pump cars -- one equipped for low-angle rescues -- two tank cars and two brush trucks. EMTs and EMRs carry AEDs -- automated external defibrillators -- and other medical equipment in their vehicles, as there is no aide car.
Of the 144 calls the district fielded last year, most were medical emergencies resulting from car and motorcycle wrecks on Highway 62, Thompson said. Of the six highway fatalities in Carroll County, four were in the Inspiration Point Fire District, which contains the worse curves on Highway 62. The district is now bracing for Bikes, Blues and Barbecue weekend -- or Bikes, Booze and Barbecue, as the volunteers call it.
Structure fires are rare -- only three last year, and those were automatic mutual aide responses to fires in Eureka Springs, Simmons said. But the fire insurance premium rating hangs on the district's ability to deal effectively with structure fires.
The bar is high: on arriving at a fire, the crew has five minutes to start delivering 250 gallons of water a minute to the blaze, Mautte said, and must be able to keep the water flowing at that rate for two hours.
To manage this, the district purchased three drop tanks, basically bowl-shaped tarps with collapsible frames that resemble portable swimming pools. By filling the drop tanks, which can be connected with jet siphons, from the tankers, then refilling them by using the tankers to shuttle water from a nearby pond or lake, the IP firefighters are able to exceed the requirement, which they proved in a drill.
"We delivered 500 gallons a minute for two hours," Mautte said.
Among the other jobs that need to be checked off: a map of water sources in the 80-square-mile district. Someone also has to visit each commercial building in the district and draw up an emergency plan for it. After all the paperwork is completed and turned in, the insurance testers will arrive within six to eight weeks, Mautte said.
Had the fire district been dissolved two years ago, the fire insurance premium rating would have gone to a 10. That's the highest rating you can get, Jason Sprenger said.
"A 10 (means you have) garden hose and a shovel," he said.
For more information about the Inspiration Point Rural Fire Protection District, go to www.ip-fire.org.