Texas blast highlights risks for volunteer firefighters

WEST, Texas/CHICAGO Sat Apr 20, 2013 8:21pm EDT

Firefighters and their family members salute a convoy of emergency vehicles from a highway overpass in remembrance of colleagues who lost their lives to a fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, near Waco, Texas April 20, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Firefighters and their family members salute a convoy of emergency vehicles from a highway overpass in remembrance of colleagues who lost their lives to a fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, near Waco, Texas April 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Adrees Latif

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WEST, Texas/CHICAGO (Reuters) - When Cody Dragoo set out with his fellow volunteer firefighters to stop the fire raging at the West Fertilizer Co, he more than anyone knew the dangers that loomed, family and friends said.

A team leader for the all-volunteer firefighting force in West, the 50-year-old worked at the plant mixing combustible chemicals to make fertilizer for use on the fields of corn and other crops that surround the rural Texas town.

"(Cody) knew what he was up against," said Danny Mynar, whose cousin was married to Dragoo. "He knew about the dangers. We talked about it. But whoever dreams something like this can happen?"

Dragoo was one of the five volunteer firefighters among the 14 people who died when the blaze in West, Texas, erupted Wednesday night into a fireball that left 200 injured, razed 50 homes and left the tight-knit town of 2,800 in shock. Several more firefighters were injured.

The cause of the explosion is yet to be determined, but the outcome is a stark reminder of the risks for the largely unpaid and underfunded volunteer forces who make up the bulk of the country's firefighters: they can find themselves battling the same kinds of complex fires as their paid and often better-equipped professional counterparts in big cities.

"What came to my mind when I heard about the explosion is this is a very risky business on a good day," said Philip Stittleburg, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and a volunteer since 1972. "There are inherent risks involved and we train very hard to determine whether risks are worth taking."

"Sometimes there are hidden risks that can't be assessed, regardless of training," he said.

Volunteer firefighting is a staple of American towns, ever since founding father Benjamin Franklin started a modern fire service in 1736. The NVFC says some 69 percent of around 750,000 U.S. firefighters are volunteers, juggling jobs and home life with ladder rescue training exercises.

West firefighters said the crew of 29 had done regular training, including exercises at the West Fertilizer plant.

The plant housed both ammonium nitrate, a component for fertilizer also sometimes used to make explosives, as well as anhydrous ammonia, a widely used source of nitrogen fertilizer which is stored under high pressure in specially designed tanks because of its volatility. It can quickly convert to a gas when pressure is released and it is considered one of the most dangerous chemicals used in agriculture.

BARBECUE COOK-OFF BUYS EQUIPMENT

Like other small towns, West's volunteers have little public funding. McLennan County, where West is located, budgets about $5,000 annually for the force, said county commissioner Will Jones.

The city adds a little for equipment upkeep and fuel, but most financial support comes through public donations, said Steve Vanek, a volunteer firefighter and West's pro-tem mayor.

"We are a small town," Vanek said. "We don't have the big tax dollars other cities have."

Firefighting is an expensive business: even a coat and pants for a firefighter cost around $2,000. To pay the bills, West's unpaid firefighters hold annual fundraisers, including a barbecue cook-off that is popular with locals. County commissioner Jones said the most recent fundraiser, held just last month, raised about $100,000.

According to the Texas A&M University Forest Service, West's volunteer fire force has received just over $50,000 in state grants since 2003 and has over $160,000 in outstanding grant requests, most of which would go to buying a single brush truck.

West lost three of its five fire engines in the blast, including a new $200,000 pumper.

Budget cutbacks and austerity in the wake of the Great Recession have also taken a toll. In Texas, where 78 percent of firefighters are unpaid volunteers, those cuts have been harsh, said Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas.

In 2011, a year of destructive wildfires in Texas, the state's 1,400 volunteer fire departments saw funding cut to $7 million from $30 million. That has since been raised to $18 million, but Barron says volunteer departments have $150 million in outstanding requests for equipment and protective clothing.

Texas Governor Rick Perry's office did not respond to a query as to whether there will be a review of spending on firefighting in the wake of the West blast.

Volunteers often pay for fuel for their fire trucks out of their own pockets, lack protective clothing, have to repair equipment themselves as best as they can or have to deal with out-of-date training materials, Barron said.

He said his association is now trying to raise money to help replace the three fire trucks destroyed in the explosion.

"We understand that in hard times there have to be budget cuts," Barron said. "But it is frustrating."

West is still reeling from the explosion, which has left locals "broke down," said the volunteer firefighter Vanek.

But there is also pride in what these volunteers did.

"They did everything by the book," said Texas State Representative Kyle Kacal, whose district includes West. "They did everything capably."

As for the need to raise money and keep going, some firefighters said they were determined to rebuild and that everyone in West would rally round. Others said the perennial need for funds was just a fact of life.

"We all feel like there should be more (money)," for equipment, said Mynar. "It is what it is."

(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins in West, Texas; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)

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