During one large local wildfire in 2018, Ellis County Rural Fire Department firefighters had water, but couldn’t use it.
“One of the biggest problems that we had, we had a whole bunch of farmers, businesses bringing out water and we had no way to get it off their trucks,” said Darin Myers, fire chief and emergency manager. “Or if we could dump it into a portable tank, we didn’t have enough set up to hold the amount of water that was out there.”
While too much water is a good problem to have, it doesn’t help fight fires if it can’t be accessed, Myers told the Ellis County Commissioners on Monday evening during their regular meeting at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.
“This year we have plenty of creeks out there full of water,” Myers said, “but it was so muddy that you couldn’t actually get close to them to be able to draft water out of it.”
It won’t be a problem too much longer, thanks to a grant from the Northwest Regional Homeland Security Council, which encompasses 18 counties.
The council has approved a $36,774 grant to cover the cost of building a water supply trailer that will provide a constant water supply. The trailer will be outfitted with six portable and collapsible tanks that can hold up to 21,000 gallons of water, plus a portable water pump that can float on static water and pump water into the trailer tanks or into a fire truck.
“When you look on a fire scene, time is of the essence, and if you have a farmer bringing out a thousand gallons of water, but they have a 10-gallon-a-minute pump, it’s going to take 100 minutes to pump that water off there,” Myers said. “That’s almost two hours of time that you’re not fighting the fire. When you can draft hundreds of gallons a minute, and refill your tank in two or three minutes, it is a significant addition to our fleet.”
Myers thinks the trailer will be built and ready by the first of the year. It will be available to neighboring fire departments, too.
“Russell, Rooks or Rush counties can borrow it,” he said. “The council actually liked it well enough, they asked me to create two trailers. We’re going to build one for Ellis County, as well as one for probably in Logan County, and next year do two more.”
Besides the trailers, the department was also approved for a PortaCount machine, which tests to make sure respirators are fitting firefighers correctly.
Without a proper fit, firefighters can lose air and also suck in hazardous particles during a fire. The test is a requirement of the Kansas Department of Labor for any employee wearing a rubber respirator. The machine will also be used throughout the region, Myers said.
Also at Monday’s meeting, the commissioners approved Myers’ request to hire an assistant director of fire and emergency management as a backup to his job by reclassifying the department’s administrative assistant position.
The move fills a gap created in August 2015 when the department was realigned to save money by combining the fire chief, emergency manager and communications director into one. At the same time, the department’s administrative assistant was hired by the public works department, leaving a vacancy.
An assistant chief will help with vehicle maintenance, fitness testing, ladder testing and training, among other things.
“The position would be of more benefit directly to the company chiefs and fire departments by taking some of the load off them,” Myers said.
The county previously had an assistant chief, but the person left several years ago for an oil company job overseas, he said.
“No matter what kind of fire department you look at, if it’s the county fire department or the city fire department, all are classified, rated and expected to perform at the same levels. We all know with a volunteer staff, that’s almost impossible,” Myers said. “However, we are rated to the same standards, and in doing so there’s a lot of things we need to do in addition to just when the pager goes off, hopping on the truck and going and fighting fires or going to vehicle accidents and such.”
He cited as examples prevention activities in fire and emergency management, pre-planning, inspecting every business each year and inspecting hydrants.
“I do realize this is probably the worst timing to ask for this position,” Myers told the commissioners, given the county’s budget crisis from 2020 forward.
However, he noted, if the department wins an Emergency Management Performance Grant from the state, that funding could pay for 50 percent of the position.
“I do believe that you need some kind of backup in your position,” said Commissioner Butch Schlyer. “So it is a position that is needed.”
Commissioner Dustin Roths said he echoes what Schlyer said.
So far, Myers said, he’s had help from the station chiefs and assistant chiefs.
“I’m very grateful that we have a good group of leadership all within our fire officers in our county and they do step up,” Myers said. “They are very knowledgeable, experienced and trained and they range from five years of service to almost 40 years of service. I have a great group that backs me up; however, as you know, they are volunteers, they have other full-time jobs.”