By Deb Patterson
ETNA GREEN — “We can never get enough equipment. We’re doing OK, could be better,” said Etna Green’s Fire Chief Randall Byrer. His department serves Etna Township, one of the poorest townships in the county and only one-fourth the size of other townships. “There’s not a lot of money available. But we get by. We don’t buy a lot of new trucks.”
In fact there were some lean years when there was barely enough funding to fuel the trucks. Because of those lean years, there has only been one new truck, a 1966, purchased through a federal grant program.
How does the department get by?
“We’ve survived. We ‘beg, barrow and steal,’ ” Byrer said. The department buys used equipment or the firefighters build it themselves. The tanker presently in use started as a semitractor. J & M Gravel donated a lot of the labor and time to rebuild the truck, and the tank was built to the department’s specifications.
The department was recently given a tanker from a gentleman who bid on a fire truck from Wakarusa.
“He called and said I won,” said Byrer, who talked to the gentleman about the truck. While the tanker holds 2,500 gallons, has a pump and is automatic, it is gas powered. “We talked a little bit. I talked to the officers to see what they would say. An hour later he called back and said ‘I’ll donate it to you.’”
Wondering how they were going to get rid of the old tanker, the issue was soon solved. When the truck was delivered, the donor saw the existing tanker and said he’d take it. “That’s how we’ve been able to get by to get stuff,” Byrer stated.
The same is true with the grass truck. The truck was bought from Baugo Township. After it was learned about the department’s financial bind, the price was lowered to $10,000. But it had a box bed. G & G Hauling helped with the bed, swapping it out for a flat bed.
The rest was individual work. A person in Atwood helped bend the roll bar and another individual did all the welding. The skid is off the old rig donated to the department years before. Outside of the truck itself, “the only things we paid for were the tires and the rims. Everything else was donated. It’s a really good grass rig for $13,000.”
The chief noted the department has enough talent that if they want something, they just build it or find somebody who can. They have firefighters who are mechanics, someone who knows about electrical wiring, those who build cars and a person versed in communications.
To help with costs for equipment, gear and other necessary items, the department hosts one or two fish fries in the spring and one or two in the fall.
“It’s the only way to buy equipment, suits, gloves,” said Byrer, adding donations help tremendously as well. He did note that under the new trustee township, funds for the department are starting to accumulate. “Maybe in 10 years we hope to be able to buy a new fire truck – we hope.”
The fish fries are important to the department and are well supported by the community, selling out each time within several hours.
“We weather it out. We can always figure out how to get by. We figure it out one way or the other. Somebody knows somebody we can talk to … We get what we need to do our job or (find someone to ) help us out,” Byrer said. He recalled an instructor telling him a firefighter will “beg, borrow to get whatever we need to do the job.”
Things are continually changing with the new trustee. It used to be the township took care of all the fuel, maintenance and repairs for the equipment and the fire department contracted with the town for services in the town limits. The fire department now contracts with the township and the township contracts with the town for services. The town’s portion goes for use of the building, a place to train, heat and water.
Loren Milton, a firefighter for 55 years, is known as the senior and one of the oldest firefighters on the department. “They won’t let me quit,” he joked. He recalls when the fire department burned down its own station. “It started out as an accident, then we let it go.” Milton said the department was in the process of demolishing the old station and had removed everything they wanted. “So we decided to burn out the bottom of it. Well, it got going real well so we said heck, let it go. It was coming down anyway … it got away from us and we just let it go.” The new station was built in 1995.
The station now has taken over the old town hall, providing office space and a place to display trophies earned during the days of waterball competitions.
“Our department was widely known for waterball,” Byrer said. They were the 1969 waterball champions at the Marshall County Blueberry Festival.
They also have a place to hang the 1888 charter of the department dated July 2, 1888. However, consideration started April 5, 1886. The document carries the name of the charter members and members of the fire department.
Etna Green Fire Department is also known as being the first or second in the state as certified first responders. Milton noted he was part of the first responder group when it started around 1985. He recalls there was no first responder course at the time, so the instructor taught an emergency technician service course. “We couldn’t get certified as an ambulance service and we didn’t want to.”
The department owns its own non-transport ambulance refurbished from an old ambulance. “We do a lot of things ourselves. We don’t have to buy everything off the showroom floor. We’ll refurbish it,” Milton said.
In addition to the first responder vehicle, the department has five trucks.
“It’s all new equipment but not new. It’s new to us. We don’t have expenditures on new equipment. I’m lucky in the 10 years I’ve been chief, we’ve worked and gotten everybody up to date in their fire gear. The gear I was given was 20 years old then, that’s considered no good any more. We’ve upgraded tremendously. I’m happy with what we’ve been able to do.”
Currently the department has 15 members, with three added this spring. The newest one joined following a recent house fire.
“He came up and said he’d like to join the fire department. We put him to work rolling hose that night.”
Byrer stated there have been as many as 22 people on the department. “We’re looking for people, just like any other fire department in the county.”