Though the funding may not be as ample or the staff as large as established municipal fire departments, rural fire departments in Sebastian County and their volunteer firefighters are just as dedicated to the residents they serve.
In a presentation at Tuesday’s Quorum Court meeting in Greenwood, Emergency Management Director Jeff Turner updated justices of the peace on the status of the work the departments do, and the ongoing training of the firefighters.
Turner said firefighter training is a continuous process. He spoke of a water delivery system exercise called the water shuttle, that is a coordinated effort by all departments that "works like a symphony" to support continuous water supply for fires.
Turner said the water delivery system has been a key component to reducing the insurance service office ratings in the county.
Five percent of the county sales tax proceeds support the rural fire departments. The county allocated $500,000 from the general fund reserve account from 2011-13 to be split among the departments in an effort to reduce the ISO ratings. The county has also helped the departments secure matching grants to build new fire stations in Jenny Lind, Bloomer, Huntington, E.M.P. near Greenwood and Big Creek.
The Quorum Court in February authorized the Huntington and Milltown/Washburn Rural Volunteer Fire Departments to apply for a $50,000 grant through the Arkansas Rural Fire Protection Grant Program to build a jointly occupied fire station.
There are 19 fire departments in Sebastian County, Turner said, including the city-only departments in Fort Smith, Greenwood, Barling, Lavaca and Central City. Turner said all the departments work together and support each other.
Jayson Clark, firefighter and search and rescue officer with the White Bluff/Rye Hill Volunteer Fire Department, said he considers the union of fire departments in the county fire system a brotherhood.
"We are all one big family," Clark said. "We work and train together. Any time there’s a fire and some guys need help elsewhere, we’re happy to help. We’ve all contributed to reducing the ISO ratings in the area, and the water shuttle really plays a big role in helping to reduce those ratings."
County Judge David Hudson commended the departments for their improved fire response and protection. He called the efforts of each department a "success story," and said as a result of "years of effort and energy," the departments’ ISO rating have been reduced, resulting in lower homeowner insurance premiums for county residents, and noted a savings of approximately $450 per residents in districts with an ISO reduction.
"It’s amazing to hear the pride in what you’ve got and what you’ve accomplished," Hudson said to the group of volunteer firefighters who attended the meeting. "The Sebastian County firefighter is a true public servant helping to save lives and property. All firefighters in Sebastian County routinely risk their lives to serve their neighbors."
The rural fire departments operate with 320 volunteer firefighters, who also assist the county’s EMS as first responders.
The county fire system, along with the Fort Smith Fire Department, will conduct a water shuttle exercise Saturday at 9 a.m. at lower Wells Lake at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center. The public is invited to attend.