Growth Mandates Full-Time Firefighters

CENTERTON - Additional positions in local flre departments are reflecting growth in Northwest Arkansas.

Firefighting was once mostly volunteer in rural Arkansas. While local departments still rely on trained volunteers to help, increasing calls create the need for more staff at the station.

Centerton added three full-time positions in mid-February, a fltst for the growing department. It's been a goal since 2012, said Chief Delton Bush. The department was staffed by firefighters working partial shifts. Now there is one person on shift 24 hours a day, a full-time chief and supplemental part-time firefighters during the day. Centerton is still a bedroom community and most calls come during the day, Bush said. The department also is poised to respond to more calls as West High School opens in 2016.

The city improved its Insurance Services Office rating from a 6 to a 4 inside the city and from a 9 to a 5 in outlying areas on March 1.

Centerton will replace two engines this summer, starting a rotation where the city can buy newer equipment on. a schedule instead of in a pinch. The city's newest truck was 15 years old. One of the two engines being replaced belongs to the county and will be rotated to another department. Another will be sold.

Prior to making the fulltime positions Centerton served more people with volunteers than any other volunteer department in the area, Bush said.

Volunteers aren't going away anytime soon in Centerton, Bush said. They will still drive to the fire stations, pick up fire trucks and head out to an emergency to back up firetlghters on duty. "We will be relying on vol~ unteers for years and years to come." Bush said.

Making positions full-time is part of the shift in building a growing flre department. The biggest change for now in Centerton was malting sure overnight staff have a place to sleep. Station 1 had the bedrooms so the transition was easy, and we were ready for people," he said.

Lowell added its fll'St fulltime positions in 200S, said Nolan Jones, fire marshal and public information officer. Now there are sbc paid firefighters and a full-time chief. Volunteers are paid per call.

The department will have to order an ambulance, and also add on so there will be a place for paramedics to sleep. Lowell firefighters now stabilize patients, but Springdale takes patients to the hospital. There were 900 calls for service in Lowell last year, most of them medical, Jones said.

Thirty years ago most departments in Northwest Arkansas were volunteer, but now it's hard to find someone who has a job .where they can leave to make a run, Jones said. Lowell requires its volunteer frrefighters to make 33 percent of the calls they are summoned to.

There's more time commitment than just the emergency. It could be a midnight call, a fire for four or five hours and then the equipment has to be readied for the next call. The hoses have to be cleaned, air packs filled, the trucks checked. It can take at least an hour to put everything back in order even from a small frre, Jones said.

Training also is required for all firefighters.

Fires are hotter, faster and deadlier today than they were years ago and firefighters have to be prepared, Jones said. Household items include more man-made materials, making the burn faster.

"It's too dangerous of a job not to train," Bush said. Gravette has six full-time staff with two people on each shift. Volunteers also are used.

Gravette Fire Department covers 56 square miles for frre protection, but takes ambulance runs to the Missouri and Oklahoma borders covering 166 miles that includes Decatur, Maysville and Sulphur Springs.

Gravette added the first full-time staff members in January 2014, said Captain Star Butler. The frre staff were just as qualified before, she said, but service is better because full-time staffers know the area, which roads to take and, most importantly, they get to know the patients who call frequently.

The future growth for Gravette will come as the Bella Vista bypass opens and their service area has a sudden influx of traffic. The department is applying for a grant for six more positions through a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant Even with two people on duty, one ambulance run leaves the station empty.

"The nature of the job is never know how much is going on when."

Gravette has provided advanced life support ambulance service since 2012, which requires a paramedic. Lowell will add advanced life support with ambulance service in early 2016. The Centerton Fire Department does not run its own ambulances but relies on neighboring Bentonville.