| WEST, Texas/CHICAGO, April 20
WEST, Texas/CHICAGO, April 20 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
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
"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
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)