MCLENNAN COUNTY, Texas — “Are you sad to see it go?” 25 News posed the question to Mike Haynes because his neighborhood fire station, the one that caught his eye as he bought his home almost a decade ago, would soon close as its volunteers disbanded effective Dec. 1.
For 37 years the Chalk Bluff Volunteer Fire Department had served and protected the area of McLennan County situated between Waco, Lacy-Lakeview, Elm Mott and Gholson just east of the Brazos.
Haynes and his wife thought they’d found the perfect balance of city and country about 10 years ago when they found the neighborhood off Gholson Road where it crosses Elm Mott.
"We thought so when we were looking at the house and fire department's right up the street, there's a fireplug right over on the corner that's a bonus," said Haynes.
Ten years later, the fireplugs went dry a while back and the Chalk Bluff Volunteer Fire Department, after a 37-year run, disbanded Wednesday, becoming a grim statistic.
According to annual data released in 2016 by FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration, all-volunteer departments made up almost 72% of fire departments in Texas, 1% more than the national average.
By this year, the number of all-volunteer departments shrank by 1.8% to 70.1%, falling below the national average. You can see similar results in fire departments described as mostly volunteer, which shrank by 1.3% from 13.2% to 11.9% for the same time period.
“What kind of pressure are volunteer departments under these days," asked 25 New's Dennis Turner.
"There's a number of things, obviously the pandemic has played a huge role in fire departments, not being able to fundraise and for some their tax revenues their tax basis has diminished that probably the biggest problem has been the lack of volunteers. Even for me recruitment and retention that's a 24/7 responsibility you can't ever stop because once you get behind you're behind the curve,” Hirsch explained.
That said, he adds he still fills 100 firefighting positions across his 900 square mile county populated mostly by cows.
In Texas, some volunteer fire departments which have been operated for generations, with almost total autonomy, have had to adjust to new accountability to the cities that partly fund them.
In Hamilton, a city demand for an equipment inventory led to some angry city council meetings.
In Bell County, Little River-Academy volunteers didn't wait for the inventory, they took their fire trucks and hid them hoping no one would notice them sitting behind a shed in Heidenheimer.
Sheriff Eddy Lange brokered a deal that ended the standoff but the damage was done.
”There is no working with them. The bridges have been burned so badly,” said Little River-Academy Mayor Drew Latham.
In Hill County, volunteers begged for a tax increase so they could get turnout gear that fit and equipment that hadn't expired.
”The protective clothing and the other equipment's got a date for a reason and I really don't want to test it any more than I have to,” said Peoria firefighter James Wantland.
But voters like Eileen Winter gave them a hard no, based in large part, on their own limited finances.
”I'm not pleased. We're on fixed incomes,” she said.
Texas has more than 1,500 fire departments with volunteers making the biggest part of the workforce, for now.
Hirsch calls fire protection a pay me now, or pay me later proposition because the bill always comes due.
“There are communities in this nation that have tried to do fire protection cheaply and it won't work and what will happen is if their volunteers are driven often they will end up with career departments and they'll pay a lot more for taxes too," said Hirsch.
Hamilton and its volunteers eventually sat down to discuss terms of the fire protection contract, but the kind of political pressure put on volunteer departments from outside forces can weigh heavy and distract from equally or more important issues.
"Everybody being able to sit down in the same room and talk and you know, be adults about it and not have a shouting match, that goes a long way,” said Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department member and Hamilton City Council member Cody Morris.
But Mike Haynes remains concerned about what happened in Chalk Bluff.
He says storm clouds started gathering here a few years ago as the volunteers struggled to keep enough money coming in, and enough people volunteering to keep the service up and running.
"I think it's been a gradual thing, just from the activity that I've seen and there was another truck and now there's not. I think it was in process, maybe in a downhill slide long before that,” he said.
The Waco Herald-Tribune reports two years ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture repossessed Chalk Bluff's new pumper truck after it defaulted on a loan.
After almost 4 decades of service, the Chalk Bluff Volunteers themselves stood at a precipice.
The patient, too long on life support, had no chance of recovery.
Leaders tried until the very last minute but their efforts to resuscitate the fire department failed and it slowly slipped away.
The National Volunteer Fire Council Identified three issues, which more and more, contributed to the loss of volunteer departments.
Tight money and finances led the list, followed by difficulty in recruitment and retention, finally a growing number of calls, and more training requirements put the icing on a smoldering cake left in a hot oven too long.
With one generation of firefighters starting to age out, it seems fewer young people have the opportunity to replace them. Most volunteer firefighters fall between the ages of 20 and 50 a time when most of us raise families, and these days that means both parents working, farther away from home, leaving little to no time for volunteering.
The council has made recruiting help a priority helping get out the word and developing a website for local departments to use and adapt to boost their shrinking numbers.
Hirsch says it forces departments to think outside the box when it comes to finding people.
“We have lots of need for people to be recruited to write grants for us to do, computer work for us, to perhaps to just drive a truck they're not going to make an injury attack, but they can certainly get a truck to the scene and operate the pump,” Hirsch explained.
Such shutdowns as Chalk Bluff can leave a community less protected or even unprotected and the National Volunteer Fire Council says its people are endangered.
"People understand that if somebody doesn't volunteer for that department, they're called to their house it's on fire. It might take an hour for a fire truck to get there if they're upside down in a car, it might take 45 minutes for somebody to get there if they're having a heart attack it might take a half-hour for an ambulance so the longer those call times go the less positive results, we have from our incidents," said Steve Hirsch.
What concerns Mike Haynes the most?
Chalk Bluff sitting at the back doors of Waco, Lacy-Lakeview and Elm Mott within sight of the front door to Whitney, Aquilla and Gholson, will see more people move in bringing with them a greater demand for emergency services.
"I'm sad to see it go. This is a growing area and we need some fire protection out here," said Haynes.
What to do? Chalk Bluff could get a bit of a band-aid for its problem, while others try to tackle the bigger, more systemic smoldering problem of volunteer fire departments on life support.
The fire chief in Elm Mott has said publicly he’d like to station one of his department’s trucks in Chalk Bluff's building. But neighbors here have no guarantee of that
But Mike Haynes hopes for the best.
"There's a facility for them right there in Chalk Bluff. I don't know if they have enough trucks to you know, do a two facility. But if they put a truck over here in our neighborhood, would I feel better again? I would," he said.
Because he says, the nine miles to Elm Mott may not seem like much on most days, but that extra time could mean the difference between saving a building or a life, or not.