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Spearfish grappling with need for new fire department

Spearfish grappling with need for new fire department

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SPEARFISH | In the wake of the mass resignation of its entire volunteer fire department, effective Jan. 31, 2016, Spearfish city officials are grappling with how they will provide fire protection services in the future.

Citing exhaustion from a lack of volunteers willing to provide future leadership, and frustration from ongoing battles with the city over adequate funding, the Spearfish Volunteer Fire Department announced Tuesday that it will disband in January after 134 years of service to the community.

In an open letter to Spearfish residents, Fire Chief Taylor Custis and President Janette Hettick said the department would dissolve because it “cannot find a leader who is willing to be chief.”

While the department had a number of interested firefighters at the beginning of the year, ensuing legal and political battles had led them to decline the position of chief, the letter stated. In addition, the department lacked qualified individuals interested in assuming other leadership roles such as assistant chief, president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.

The department’s volunteer numbers have been declining for five years, and rapidly decreased last year, Custis and Hettick stated. With a current roster of 37 members, the department could support 63, they said. Finally, ongoing battles with the city over establishing a fire district capable of assessing taxes and the city’s commitment to the department had left its members drained, Custis and Hettick stated.

“We have been worn down and are exhausted,” they wrote.

Tears and frustration

Hettick, who has been with the fire department for 13 years, seven as its president, said the decision to dissolve the volunteer organization was as tough as it gets, but all of the members were committed to helping establish a new, viable fire department.  

“This was the hardest decision that we have ever made while I’ve been on the department,” Hettick said. “Certainly there were tears and there were really more words of frustration than anger. But the fire department is like a family, which is the most endearing part of it to all of us.

“I think any citizen who sat in on those meetings would have been proud to see people who really care about each other and the citizens we protect,” she added. “We tried to make the best decision possible. We’re not throwing our hoses down and going home. We’re going to work together and try to find a solution that benefits everyone.”  

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Mayor Dana Boke said this week that the city understood firefighters’ frustrations, as well as their long-term commitment to the community.

“The decision made to shut down this volunteer organization is heart-wrenching considering the many, many, many firefighters who represent both our past and our present,” Boke said. “There have been generations of firefighters; fathers and sons who served. This action should not diminish their service in any way.”

The mayor said she was confident that city and Lawrence County officials, working with surrounding towns and local volunteers who want to continue serving as firefighters, could create a new department before the Jan. 31 deadline.

“There will be no lapse in fire protection,” Boke said. “Surrounding communities have already stepped up to provide any support we may need.”

Around the state

A survey of the 15 largest communities in South Dakota revealed that every town with a population larger than Spearfish, at 10,494 residents, has a city fire department led by professional firefighters. Vermillion, similar in size to Spearfish with a population of 10,699 people, also has a city fire department, as does Madison with a population of 7,100. Brandon, Box Elder and Rapid Valley are all served by volunteer fire departments, the survey showed.

Spearfish City Administrator Joe Neeb said Wednesday that Spearfish may adopt a hybrid model that combines volunteer firefighters with a professional chief and department administration, although coming meetings would likely determine the model the city adopts.

“From where we stand right now, a completely full-time staff would be very expensive,” Neeb said by telephone from outside Anchorage, Alaska, where he was set to attend a municipal government conference starting today. “Those are the bookends — a volunteer fire department or a full-time staff. I think we’ll see a hybrid of those; somewhere in between.”

Faced with increasing calls for service and a decline in volunteerism, Neeb acknowledged that local firefighters felt frustrated with what they perceived as a lack of support from the city. With a growth rate that has averaged 24 percent each decade since the early 1900s, the city administrator said changes in fire protection services for Spearfish and the surrounding area were inevitable.

“We were wearing these people out,” Neeb said. “The volunteers were feeling this growth and the increasing expectations and demands placed on their department. All of our city departments have had to adjust to what is happening in terms of growth and the fire department is no different.”

Neeb said more than half of the department’s volunteers had expressed an interest in being involved with a re-constituted fire department, which he found encouraging. Meetings planned later this month between city and county officials and those volunteers would further explore options and help determine what model is pursued for a new fire department, he said. 

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