CEDAR VALE, Kan. (KSNW) – Firefighting is truly a service job, and here in Kansas it takes on a whole different meaning.
The U.S. Fire Administration says 80 percent of fire departments in Kansas are volunteer. The administration also says Kansas is about 10 percent above the national average when it comes to volunteer fire departments.
This means many of our brave men and women that protect and serve the public do it without getting paid.
As some longtime, dedicated firefighters edge towards retirement, it doesn’t make it any easier to find people who will step up to save.
One town in Kansas that has a volunteer department is Cedar Vale. The town of 579 people is tucked away in the southeastern part of the state in Chautauqua County.
“Because most of them are all younger than me, they are just younger than me and just nicknamed me the momma of the firehouse,”
– Montra Beeler, 62, volunteer firefighter
Most people in town spend their days at work and school.
Cedar Vale School is where you can find Montra Beeler. She has worked as a Para-educator there since 2001. Beeler spends a majority of her day walking the hallways, going to different classes to lend a helping hand to the students who need it.
“I come to this end of the hall for four hours and then I go back to biology,” said Beeler.
While Beeler enjoys her job at the school, her real passion comes when she throws on her fire gear and heads out the door to fight a fire.
“Your adrenaline gets up when you get paged out to come to a fire,” said Beeler.
Beeler has been volunteering for Chautauqua Fire District 1 for six years. She said her son, Marshall, who has been a volunteer for eight years told his mom she should volunteer. He put the idea in her head after noticing she was always hanging around the fire house.
While small in stature, Beeler met the idea head on.
“Because most of them are all younger than me, they are just younger than me and just nicknamed me the momma of the firehouse,” said Beeler.
Beeler is 62 years old, lively and energetic. She says getting younger volunteers is more of challenge now, than it used to be.
“I think it is just hard to get the volunteers here and keep them, you know, we have a fluctuation kinda and there are a few of us who have been here quite a while now,” said Beeler.
Chief Steven Dale, with the Chautauqua Fire District 1 says they made a push to try to recruit some younger volunteers.
“We did have a small issue with our recruitment so we decided to start a junior firefighter program, we went to our high school and we set a couple of parameters of 15 years of age or older,” said Chief Dale.
While they were able to get a few young recruits here and there, it hasn’t totally helped combat the problem.
“Living in a small town, you have to survive, you have to work out-of-town, like I said I got 25 people on our roster but most of them are working out-of-town,” said Chief Dale.
The National Volunteer Fire Council says there are about 661 fire departments spread across the state of Kansas. Only about 40 of those are designated as career, or paid departments.
RELATED LINK | National Volunteer Fire Council
The NVFC says there are 16,000 firefighters in Kansas, 12,000 of which are volunteer. They estimate that about a third of the volunteers are above the age of 50 years old.
Living in a small community, Chief Dale says younger people graduate high school and then leave.
“It happens a lot or if they do stick around, they work out-of-town again,” said Chief Dale.
So Chief Dale says, they just roll up their sleeves.
“A lot of hard work goes into a rural, volunteer fire department,” said Chief Dale. “And when we ain’t got the money, we just put in a little bit harder work.”
As for Beeler, she says the hard work and a little bit of fun that she says she won’t stop having, just yet.
“It just kind of gets into you, just kind of grows on you,” said Beeler.
Even at 62 years old, Beeler knows it’s a service that her community still relies on.
“You have to survive on volunteers, you have to have those volunteers,” said Beeler.
Chautauqua Fire District 1 responds to about 50 to 60 fires every year. Chief Dale says that is mainly during grass burning season in the Spring.