Answering the call

When firefighters are summoned to emergencies in rural Missouri, chances are the crews responding are vol­unteers. They’re not getting paid for putting themselves in harm’s way to save people and property. They simply want to serve their communities.

Funding is usually sparse. Equipment may be lacking. Infrastructure is often inadequate. But these volunteer fire departments are a critical lifeline for rural residents who rely on their services in times of trouble.

“We’re the first line of defense,” said Mike Prigge, fire chief for the Vichy Volunteer Fire Protection Association. “We answer 80 to 100 calls every year, everything from vehicle wrecks to structural fires, flood rescues to brush fires. We’ve even responded to plane crashes because we are the closest fire department to the Rolla National Airport, which is just down the road from our station.”

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, Missouri has 775 registered fire departments, and nearly 85% are volunteer or mostly volunteer. These entities are largely dependent on donations, not tax dollars, to run their operations. In the Vichy district, community dinners throughout the year provide about half of its annual bud­get. The rest comes from annual dues paid by residents served by the district, which spreads in a six-mile radius.

“It seems there’s never enough funding for a fire department, but in rural areas, that’s really, truly the case,” said Gail Hagans, educational program coordi­nator for the University of Missouri Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute (FRTI). “When there isn’t a municipality to pay the bills, even the smallest amount of funding can make a big difference.”

That’s why the MFA Charitable Founda­tion has partnered with the FRTI to offer grants that can be used to equip volunteer fire departments with the training and resources they need to save lives and protect property. Launched last year, this first-of-its-kind program awarded more than $30,000 to 19 fire and rescue entities across the state. MFA’s foundation contributed $26,000 with a donation of $5,000 more from CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving MFA and other member-owned organizations across rural America.

For 2020, the MFA Charitable Founda­tion board of trustees approved $25,000 for the grant program, and CoBank provided an additional $10,000. Each award recip­ient must provide a 50% match for their requested funding. The award maximum is $2,000 and minimum is $500. 

“This program puts structure to MFA’s longstanding commitment of support for fire departments that serve our rural areas,” said Ernie Verslues, MFA Incorporated CEO. “For years, the foun­dation received individual requests and struggled with allocating funds to those departments with the greatest need. The fire and rescue professionals in this organization have an in-depth understanding of the operations and these rural departments and how the funds can be dis­persed to help them better serve their communities.”

In its first year, the grant program received 77 applications, far more than anticipated. The 2019 requests totaled nearly $316,000, well exceeding the grant pool and demonstrating the need, Hagans said.

“Firefighting gear is specialized, so it’s expensive,” she said. “On our grant applications last year, we saw some volunteer fire department budgets that were only $3,000 or $4,000 a year. When it comes to buying what they may need, whether it’s a pair of gloves or a flashlight or a radio or any number of things, these grants will truly impact how they can operate.”

To put the costs into perspective, a pair of structural firefighting gloves can run $75 to $100. It takes more than $2,000 to outfit one firefighter with turnout gear—personal protective equipment that in­cludes a coat, pants, boots, hood, helmet and gloves—and each member of the department needs a complete set. A basic SCBA unit (self-contained breathing appara­tus) with a single mask and cylinder can set a fire department back more than $5,000.

Under last year’s grant program, the Vichy Volunteer Fire Protection Association received a $2,000 award for turnout gear. Matching the grant for a total of $4,000, the department was able to buy two sets of much-needed PPE, each adding up to about $2,100.

“There’s never enough money to go around to pay all the bills, so the MFA grant was a big help,” said Bonnie Prigge, the association’s board president. “Those dollars were used wisely to help benefit and protect our community. We were able to get funding about 10 years ago for new turnout gear, but they only have a 10-year lifespan, and it’s time to start replacing them. Now we have two new sets, and only 15 more to go!”

For 2020, the application period runs from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30, with award notifications expected after Feb. 1, 2021. Depending on the availability of funds, the goal is to provide grants to at least one recipient in each of the nine Fire Mutual Aid Regions in Missouri. Each agency must be registered with the Missouri Division of Fire Safety, Hagans pointed out.

District directors from the Firefighters Association of Mis­souri (FFAM) and MU FRTI regional coordinators will review applications from their jurisdictions and score them accord­ingly, with final review by a committee comprised of FRTI and FFAM members, the Missouri Division of Fire Safety and MFA Incorporated to determine awardees.

“It’s a great program, something that is absolutely needed by fire departments such as ours,” said Chief Prigge, who’s been a Vichy firefighter since the association was formed in 1977. “We’re an all-volunteer organization. We serve because we have a sense of wanting to help people and give back to the commu­nity, and we really appreciate the support we get in return.”

For more information on how to apply for funding, visit on­line at mfa.ag/volunteerfiregrant or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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