Tim Robertson knows recruiting and staffing a rural fire department has never been easy.
In the last few years, though, it’s gotten even harder.
Robertson, a longtime firefighter and Central Polk County Fire Protection District board president, previously fought fires with both the Bolivar and Springfield fire departments.
“We’re pretty fortunate (at CPC), but nationwide there is a shortage of volunteers,” he said. “You’re just not getting the people like they used to. We had no problems getting volunteers in the 1970s.”
That’s part of the reason Robertson, along with several other Polk County fire district leaders, have sought to unify at least some area fire departments and protection districts into a single district.
“Back in the Bolivar volunteer days, we had a lot of people that were self-employed,” he said. “They could drop what they were doing. It’s not like that anymore. If a call goes out during the day, everybody does their best.”
Robertson said the goal is to see at least several of the fire districts based in Polk County joined to help share the load of protecting the county.
CPC, Fair Grove, Morrisville, Pleasant Hope and Walnut Grove Fire Protection Districts are currently funded through tax levies, Polk County Clerk Melinda Robertson said.
Others, including Halfway and Humansville Rural Fire, are funded through dues paid by district residents.
Humansville’s city fire department is funded through the city budget. While both Humansville’s city and rural departments have their own vehicles, the two share one truck and firefighters’ turnout gear jointly funded by both departments, Humansville City Clerk Tracy Mason said.
Melinda Robertson said her office doesn’t keep records on the departments --- like Prairie Grove Fire Department --- that are financed through other methods, like subscriptions.
Already a department funded through the city with several paid career employees in addition to volunteers, Bolivar City Fire Department wouldn’t need to be a part of the combined district, Tim Robertson said.
Asked if BCFD would have an involvement in a combined fire district, chief Brent Watkins told the BH-FP, “Not at this time.”
However, there are several other fire departments that could benefit from merging, Tim Robertson said. Current tax revenues generally leave the districts without the revenue needed to hire full-time personnel, he said.
“If we could get all of our revenues under one umbrella, we could get some paid people and get a couple of stations across the county manned full-time,” he said.
While he said Central Polk County has been the driving force behind the idea, Tim Robertson stressed that any added districts wouldn’t be under CPC’s leadership. The newly formed, consolidated district would have its own elected board.
“You had to have a host,” he said. “Somebody had to get the ball rolling. Nobody else was doing it, so we said, ‘We’ll get it out there.’ We've been to several different departments and talked to them. We’ve had a lot of good responses and also some negative responses.”
To complete a merger, Tim Robertson said a district would have to first obtain enough signatures on a petition to qualify the merger as a ballot question. CPC would also have to obtain signatures for a ballot question.
Both petitions would need to be certified first by the county clerk and then by a circuit judge before the question went to voters in any district involved in the merger.
If approved, the new district as a whole could operate under a single levy rate and could qualify for a single, unified ISO, he said.
A lower ISO can mean lower insurance premiums for residents. For instance, after forming six years ago, Tim Robertson said CPC was able to reduce the district’s ISO from 10 to five.
A combined district’s financial outlook would also improve with a merger, he said. Insurance costs for one district are less than the cost of multiple districts, and vehicle and other expenses could be shared.
“It’s tough when you don’t have a huge tax base,” he said. “These trucks are expensive.”
While talks of combining fire districts and departments has been limited just to conversations, Tim Robertson said, at least one department is seeking to be a part of a combined district.
Halfway Fire Department Chief Jeremy Howe said the department is working to get the issue on the ballot for next April.
“We figured the merger is coming about, so let’s jump on board and go for it,” Howe said.
The move makes sense for financial reasons, he said. If approved by voters, Howe said the district would be taxed as a part of Central Polk County.
“Halfway is struggling financially,” he said. “We’ve got money in the bank, but we can’t always count on people to pay their dues.”
There’s a bigger picture to the process, he said.
“Instead of every little department having a little bit of money, it's all going to be one big pool,” he added. “We’d pay one insurance company. In the long run, it benefits everybody.”
Humansville Fire Chief John Hopkins, who oversees both the rural and city departments, offered a reserved approach.
He said the department and its board have discussed the issue and have decided to wait for more information before drawing conclusions.
“There’s not really a lot of the details that have been worked out yet,” he said. “We’ve been looking into it, but we haven’t decided whether we’re in favor.”
Pleasant Hope Fire Chief Greg Wood also said a firm decision hadn’t been reached, but that there were several benefits to merging.
“I think it would help,” he said. “If you had more money, you could put paid people on the roster. You’d have more people during the day, which is where we’re hurting at.”
And as a single district, responding firefighters also wouldn’t have to wait for a mutual aid call before jumping into action, he said.
The final decision rests with the district’s board, he said.
The BH-FP emailed questions to Morrisville Fire Protection District Chief Kirk Jones, who did not reply. The BH-FP was also unable to reach Dunnegan and Prairie Grove rural fire departments.
Structure in the station
If approved, Tim Robertson said any new district would operate under the leadership of a single chief, who likely would have assistant chiefs.
Current fire district and department chiefs would remain in place as battalion or division chiefs, he said.
“He wouldn't have to do all the day-to-day bookkeeping and all of that stuff, though,” he said. “He would be in charge of his people, and if he needed something, he would go up the chain of command.”
Tim Robertson also acknowledged that there may be challenges. Fire departments can be territorial, he said. But he also said he feels it’s important to act in the best interest of the county, pointing to population growth as a sign that action is needed.
“Something is going to have to happen eventually,” he said. “The county is getting bigger and homes are getting nicer. More businesses are coming in. They need protection, and somebody’s going to have to respond.”