Rural fire department surviving COVID-19, declining volunteerism

Fire crews whittled down to skeleton crews amid pandemic
Published: Aug. 11, 2020 at 1:01 PM CDT
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ROCHFORD, S.D. (KEVN) - 280 square miles: that’s how much land the Rochford Volunteer Fire Department protects.

From Lawrence County to Pennington County - from the South Dakota-Wyoming border to the Black Hills Experimental Forest - about 30 firefighters defend a sprawling, woodland biome from the threat of forest fire.

That is, at least they used to.

Rochford Fire Chief Dan Harn has been in the firefighting business since the 1980s. He has seen his department through many highs and some lows, but it wasn’t until little over a decade later that he saw a truly worrisome trend.

“Probably in the mid-to-late 90s is when we started to see a decline [in volunteers],” Harn says. The glory days of Rochford VFD and their firefighting arsenal are gone, but the task of covering an area roughly the size of Salt Lake City remains.

Since then, their numbers have slowly dropped: “currently, right now, we have 18.”

That’s if everyone is home and available - a big if for multiple reasons - and it’s more likely only half the force is available, according to Harn.

He says some of his crew members have family commitments that take priority over volunteer work, while others are already working full- and part-time jobs.

The coronavirus pandemic has only compounded the toll on Harn’s fire company: “we still have two that have not [answered] any calls ... because of the pandemic. They don’t want to go unless they absolutely have to.”

On average, this means only eight to 10 firefighters will show up per call - a far cry from the 30 firefighters on the front lines four decades ago.

Rochford VFD’s funding has also taken a hit through all this: “donations are down this year ... we canceled Rochford Day this year, which is a large influx for our fundraising.”

Harn also believes fewer young people feel like volunteering. Most of his crew are their 60s, he says, and their youngest, greenest recruit is his own 19-year-old daughter, Alexa.

The younger Harn says she joined the force partly due to familial reasons and partly out of goodwill towards her neighbors.

“I pretty much grew up here all my life, so giving back to the community - they helped me and my family so many times, so I’d like to give back and help them,” Alexa says.

Alexa is roughly half the age of their next youngest recruit. Her father noted she joined the force more than a year ago and that the department is lucky to find even one volunteer in a year.

However, Harn commends his crew for being made of tough stock and regards their woes like it’s a fire - something they’re well equipped to deal with.

“It’s survivable. It’s tough. It definitely puts some barriers up into some of the stuff that we can do ... but I wouldn’t say [we’re] threatened. We’re stable with what we have,” Harn finished.

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