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Call to Duty

What does it mean to be a volunteer firefighter and first responder?

For some, it is a calling. For others, it’s a passion. For many, it is heritage, passed down through the generations. Their call to duty is greatly needed yet often yields little recognition for the countless hours spent saving lives and protecting the property of rural Missourians.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, three out of four Missouri firefighters are volunteer, often serving their communities while working full-time jobs or managing their own businesses. These volunteers receive no money for their service, and their districts are largely dependent on donations and grants—not tax dollars—to run and maintain their equipment and operations.

“Volunteer firefighters make tremendous sacrifices of their personal time on behalf of their fellow citizens,” said Don Fontana, vice president of the Prairie Home Rural Fire Protection District Board. “These people volunteer during their off hours to serve others. There are many volunteer organizations around, but the difference is that rural and volunteer firefighters are called upon at any time of day or night, in any kind of weather, all year long.”

The MFA Charitable Foundation has a long history of fulfilling donation requests made by fire departments across Missouri. Because of the ongoing needs of rural fire districts, MFA launched its Volunteer Fire Grant in 2019. This first-of-its-kind program has awarded nearly $100,000 over the past three years to fire and rescue entities across the state. The University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute (MU FRTI), helps MFA by providing administrative oversight of the grant program. 

“It seems there’s never enough funding for a fire department, but in rural areas, that’s really, truly the case,” said Gail Hagans-Reynolds, FRTI educational program coordinator. “When there isn’t a municipality to pay the bills, even the smallest amount of funding can make a big difference.” 

MU FRTI is the sixth-oldest state-level fire training program in the United States. The Institute’s mission is to provide effective, standards-based, quality training and education for emergency responders. Training includes structural, wildland and aircraft firefighting; emergency medical care; technical rescue; environmental emergency mitigation; fire service instructor and company officer development; counterterrorism; emergency management; and emergency planning and exercise evaluation. Each hour of training translates directly into safer firefighters and safer communities. 

For 2022, the MFA Charitable Foundation board of trustees has approved $50,000 for the grant program. The application period runs from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30, with winning districts notified in February 2023 of their award.
The MFA Fire Grant focuses on addressing the needs of the fire service who will benefit the most. Depending on the availability of funds, the goal is to award grants to at least one recipient in each of the nine Fire Mutual Aid Regions in Missouri.
To highlight the service of these unsung heroes, Today’s Farmer is featuring four districts that were awarded a grant last year and how they are using the funds to protect others as well as themselves. 

Glasgow Fire District 
A third-generation firefighter, Glasgow Fire District (GFD) Chief Jayce Olendorff is proud to say that being a firefighter is in his blood. His grandfather served almost 40 years, his father served 44 years, his uncle joined in the 1970s and his cousin serves alongside him today.

“It is something I have always wanted to do, and I’m passionate about it,” Olendorff said.
Passion only goes so far when it comes to being a volunteer firefighter in a rural community. Lack of funding, equipment and manpower are realities but cannot be “an excuse to not get the job done,” Olendorff explained.

“It certainly does create more work and stressful situations, but you have to find a way,” the fire chief said. “We really take pride in doing more with less.” 

Emergency service requires expensive and custom-built equipment to handle dangerous situations safely and successfully. Training to the highest standards is another huge component. The hours of training are vital to keep firefighters safe but can be overwhelming when they are volunteers who also work a full-time job or run a business.

“When rescuing someone from a burning building or a car wreck or helping someone experiencing a medical emergency, they don’t care if you are a volunteer or career firefighter,” Olendorff said. “They need us to take the worst experience of their life and make it better. It takes so much work and time, but we strive to be the best and to come home safely to our families.”

The MFA grant Glasgow received this year was used to purchase a pair of turnout pants and a coat that had previously been removed from the budget. The beneficiary of the equipment is Trace Thompson, who is a full-time student at the University of Missouri and a member of the United States Army National Guard. The state-of-the-art gear is tailor-made to fit, which reduces fatigue and provides maximum protection.

“We are replacing all our outdated personal protective equipment (PPE). Rather than wiping out our entire budget by replacing it all at once, we have been outfitting two to three firefighters who were in the most need each year,” Olendorff explained. “We had planned on purchasing three sets of PPE in 2022, but to cover the high cost of fuel, the district moved money from the operating budget, which eliminated the funds for one full set of new gear. This grant kept the Glasgow Fire District on track with our replacement cycle.”

There are two other families, the Beelers and the Nevilles, who now have a third generation contributing service to the GFD.
“It really says something great about our department to keep bringing in the next generation,” Olendorff said. “I have three daughters, and they are growing up with the same station I did. Maybe they’ll be the fourth generation.”

St. James Fire Protection District 
In the beautiful rolling hills of Missouri’s wine country, the St. James Fire Protection District (SJFPD) faces one of the same key issues as many other rural departments—a lack of volunteers. 

“It seems like it’s harder and harder to find volunteers, which means we run some calls with very few people,” St. James Fire Chief John Douglas said. “We, along with several departments around us, rely on mutual aid to assist with some calls due to everyone having lack of volunteers.” 

And like other rural volunteer departments, SJFPD fulfills big needs on a small budget.

“We make what we get each year stretch as far as possible,” Douglas said. “We cover roughly 250 square miles with a mixture of farmland and residential. We rely on grants to be able to upgrade tools and purchase new equipment. Our budget only goes so far and doesn’t leave much room to make big purchases.” 

With the help of the 2022 MFA Volunteer Fire Grant, SJFPD was able to purchase two PRO/paks, a convenient, self-contained system used for foam application. When attached to the fire hose, the PRO/pak produces a dense foam that helps with vapor suppression and longevity.

“We used the PRO/pak a few times at training classes and realized how efficient they were,” Douglas said. “Currently we do not have an engine that has a foam tank on it, so we would have to get out the bucket of foam and the induction tube and nozzle, and it was quite a lengthy setup. With the PRO/pak, we can be flowing foam within a couple of minutes, which is a huge asset when fighting fire. It also doesn’t require more than one person to set it up and use it.” 

According to the United States Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 85% of Missouri’s fire departments are volunteer and 15% are career.

“People don’t realize that most fire departments in Missouri are volunteer departments,” Douglas said. “Those volunteers have families, work full-time jobs and still make time to run calls to assist citizens in their communities. The St. James Fire Protection District is made up a great group of volunteers who have dedicated a lot of time—10, 20 and even 30 years.”

Prairie Home Rural Fire Protection District 
Helping those who help others. That’s how Don Fontana views his role of vice president of the Prairie Home Rural Fire Protection District (PHRFPD) Board.

“I injured my back when I was in my early 20s and never considered volunteering as a firefighter or first responder because of the injury,” Fontana said. “When I was asked to serve on the board in 2018, I was happy to give back to my community in that way.”

“I suspect there are a lot of people who, like me, don’t realize there is a need for any kind of help, even on boards. I cannot overemphasize how committed our volunteer firefighters and first responders are,” he added. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for all of them and for everything they do to support our community.” 

Headquartered in this small, rural community southeast of Boonville, PHRFPD serves approximately 80 square miles of primarily agricultural land, farm residences, the city of Prairie Home and its homes and businesses. It is also responsible for the pass-through traffic traveling on Highway 87 and several lettered routes. With an annual operating budget of slightly under $34,000, Fontana said the PHRFPD must be extremely frugal.

The district was awarded an MFA grant this year for $800 and received $2,000 in 2019. With the funding, the district purchased two top-handle chainsaws with 14-inch bars to aid in fighting brush fires. Two generators, a wire kit, four dual-head LED work lights (two for each generator), and eight heavy-duty extension cords were bought to be used primarily for lighting accident scenes. 

In 2019, the district used its MFA grant money to buy three lifting air bags and accessories to assist with accident rescues. The low uninflated profile of the bags allows them to be quickly deployed to lift or level vehicles or farm equipment. 

“The grants our department have received from MFA are greatly appreciated,” Fontana said. “The difference made by the equipment purchases funded by the grants has improved safety for our volunteer firefighters and first responders. It also provides us the tools to better serve the residents and visitors to our service area if they require an emergency response.” 
Mayview Fire Protection District 

Kris White, chief of Mayview Fire Protection District (MFPD), was excited to receive the MFA Fire Grant this year to purchase a grain bin rescue kit, but he hopes the department’s first responders never have to use it.

“We are a rural area and have many old grain bins out here,” White said. “Our crew has been through all the training and state certification, but we never had the equipment. Now we do. I’d rather not use it, but if you need it, you need it.” 
The kit is designed to be adaptable to many different rescue scenarios involving grain bins, where a person can be in trouble in a matter of minutes. Moving grain is like quicksand, and its suction can quickly entrap someone and cause asphyxiation. Even with grain bin rescue equipment, White said, it takes manpower to get someone out.

“That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “You have to call everyone because the rescue takes so many people.” 

Most of MFPD’s calls are medical, White explained. With no hospital or police station in the town of 200, the department’s first responders are a vital part of the community.

“We are running probably 12 calls a month,” White said, who has been the fire chief for 12 years. “For fires, we provide mutual aid to other departments. If they have a call, we go and help because everybody’s shorthanded.”
White operates a metal fabrication shop in Mayview, so he is usually the first to respond to emergency situations. Many of the other volunteer firefighters work in the Kansas City area and are not available during the day. Relying on neighboring districts is crucial.

He was only 14 when he answered the call to duty, with his father and stepdad as role models and fellow volunteer firefighters. At age 16, White participated in the National Volunteer Fire Council Junior Firefighter Program. The program helps attract young people into the emergency services, whether as a first responder or as a community supporter. 

White spends at least 20 hours a month on his volunteer firefighter duties. In addition to calls, there are monthly board meetings, training two nights a month, equipment maintenance paperwork, grant writing and fundraising.

“My wife actually helps with writing grants and donations,” White said. “The wives formed the Ladies Auxiliary, which supports our efforts. Don’t raise your hand if you don’t want to do it.”
Like many other volunteer firefighters, the service becomes part of who they are, he added.

“When you look at family photos, someone always has a radio or pager on,” White said. “You may be getting ready to go to Thanksgiving dinner, and the radio goes off. You head off to the emergency as your family goes to Thanksgiving without you. It’s a calling, I guess you’d say.”

If you know of a volunteer fire department in your community that could benefit from these grants, encourage their members to email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit online at for more information.

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