RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
With all the recent natural disasters - hurricanes, tropical storms, wildfires - the role of first responders has been front and center. In densely populated areas, these are all paid professionals. But in rural America, 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers. And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, that system of volunteers is under stress.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: It's 104 degrees in western Kansas. And on the side of this highway, just south of Jetmore, two guys in heavy protective gear are finishing up a grass fire. Jason Lonnberg raced from his construction job to fight this blaze for free.
JASON LONNBERG: If somebody wasn't here to do it, it could get out of hand real quick.
MORRIS: Volunteer fire departments are keeping fires in check for almost 9 out of 10 American communities. But some of these departments are barely hanging on.
Where are we here?
DAVID BOHANNAN: Cedar Vale, Kan., Chautauqua Fire District, Number One.
MORRIS: Volunteer David Bohannan shows off a shed full of old fire trucks. But he says finding people to operate them is a challenge.
BOHANNAN: This department is the smallest it's ever been.
MORRIS: Cedar Vale, like lots of remote rural towns, is in decline. And volunteer Dwight Call says that undermines recruiting efforts.
DWIGHT CALL: There's no jobs here. So if you live here and you're working age, you're probably driving somewhere to work or you're working at one or two places here in town that probably aren't going to let you take off to fight fire.
MORRIS: So Cedar Vale, like many other rural fire departments, is increasingly turning to people like 62-year-old Mantra Beeler.
MANTRA BEELER: I am a firefighter. I drive trucks, fight fires. I'm kind of the mama of the fire barn.
MORRIS: Beeler, who barely cracks 5 feet tall, says she has a hard time seeing over the dash of some of these big fire trucks. But she is a crucial first responder here.
BEELER: Right now, the three of us that respond most of the time are me, my son Marshal and Zeke. We're the three that usually show up to go to car wrecks, to motorcycle wrecks, to fires.
DICK GOODRUN: Keeping volunteers is kind of tough nowadays.
MORRIS: Dick Goodrun runs this fire equipment supply business in Mayfield, Kan. He's also a fire chief here. I started 60 years ago.
MORRIS: You've been a volunteer firefighter for 60 years?
GOODRUN: Yes, I have.
MORRIS: How old are you?
GOODRUN: (Laughter) Sixty plus 14.
MORRIS: According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, about a third of small town volunteer firefighters are now over 50 - double the number in the 1980s. Meantime, Jeff Mortimer with the Mayfield Department says the workload keeps mounting.
JEFF MORTIMER: When I first started it, all we did was fires. Now we're a power line arching to accidents, HAZMAT, you know, technical rescue - you know, all of the above.
MORRIS: Not to mention, medical emergencies. Across the country, cost of volunteer fire departments have tripled in the last three decades - tripled. And that's slammed volunteer EMS services, like the one Chrissy Bartell runs in Norwich, Kan.
CHRISSY BARTELL: This is my office. This entire building used to be a doctor's office for our community. And several years ago, we lost having a doctor in town.
MORRIS: Now this volunteer ambulance service is the only medical provider in town and covers nearly 300 square miles. Bartell says it struggles to keep up.
BARTELL: Call volumes are up tremendously. And I don't foresee that changing other than just to increase.
MORRIS: There's no easy solution to the growing pressure. Going to paid fire and EMS everywhere, would cost a fortune. National Fire Protection Association study figured that volunteer firefighters donate about $140 billion worth of labor each year. Even so, many departments have a hard time affording basic equipment. Though, there are real departments attracting sufficient funding and able-bodied volunteers.
Steve Hirsch here behind the wheel of a big gleaming fire truck in tiny Hoxie, Kan., says it takes sustained effort.
STEVE HIRSCH: Recruitment is one of those 24/7/365 deals. We just never stop recruiting.
MORRIS: Like many volunteer firefighters, Hirsch is deeply committed to what he's doing because without volunteers and departments like his, he says huge swaths of America would just burn up. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
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