La Vista, NE - They risk their lives putting out fires, and they do it all for free. For fifty years, the city of La Vista has been protected by fire volunteers. But La Vista is now expanding faster than the volunteers on the department.
According to La Vista Mayor, Douglas Kindig, the city has grown by 45 percent in the last ten years. The number of calls coming into the fire department is increasing too - nearly 150 percent in the last decade. The volunteer fire department used to be at capacity. Anymore, it struggles to keep 60
firefighters on call. According to the mayor, the dwindling number of volunteers on staff is the driving force behind eliminating volunteers completely. "The volunteers give just as much effort as a paid staff, but it's not a full time position," says Kindig. Most of the volunteers have day jobs. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the department is lucky to have five people answer a call, a problem the mayor thinks can be fixed by joining forces.
Papillion city fire already works with Papillion rural fire department. The two entities do not believe adding an additional district will cause strain. Mayor David Black says the merger will come down to two principals: cooperation and efficiency.
It's unknown how many additional people will be hired to work with Papillion fire if the departments consolidate. Currently, Papillion has a total of 42 members on staff, 39 are firefighters. La Vista volunteers wanting to pursue a full time career as a paid firefighter must apply and undergo state testing. Black says no one can be favored in. The two fire stations already in La Vista will not be moved; instead, they are expected to be utilized.
Jack Miller has been putting out blazes for more than 40 years. He currently works on the Papillion rural fire department. He says a volunteer firefighter can respond to a call within seven to ten minutes, a paid firefighter can respond within two to three minutes, the reason, paid are always ready to go.
If the cities decide to join forces, the changes would take effect for the 2014 budget, starting October 1, 2013. The mayor's say more studies need to be done to ensure that this is the best step for the departments. It's still unclear how much it will cost the city to hire new firefighters. Even though the La Vista fire department is made up of volunteers, the operational cost average 600 thousand dollars per year with an additional 400 thousand in building costs. Both cities believe joining is the fiscally responsible decision as La Vista grows.
The news of eliminating volunteers came as a surprise on March 7, to dozens of fire fighters. Matt Rappley is the President of the La Vista fire association, he says the news brought shock and anger, but most everyone is just trying to wrap their heads around the fact that they may not be able to fight fires again. "Hopefully volunteers can have a position," explains Rappley. While some may not agree with the decision, Rappley says all the fire fighters agree, what's best for the citizens come first.
The city of La Vista is looking at a few other options which include forming a full-time La Vista fire department - providing compensation for the volunteers, or entering into a contract with an outside company for EMS services, although, joining with Papillion fire is the decision in the lead. "We have to do what is in the best interest for the residents of La Vista," says Kindig, even if it's not in the best interest for those protecting the city.