(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
That was March 1981.
With an increasing number of volunteers, the East County Fire Protection District has come a long way since its humble beginnings 30 years ago. Currently, 37 men and women volunteer for the department.
"We didn't have a truck. We were still with garden hoses," said Dwayne Kirchhoff, the district's fire chief. "We were the only ones in Cape County without a fire district or a fire department. People were really putting them out with garden hoses and the old-fashioned bucket."
Equipment is no longer an issue for the East County crew, who at an open house Sunday celebrated with the community all it's accomplished since announcing its formation years ago at a meeting at Nell Holcomb School.
The fire department wasn't able to search for a truck and send out bids until 1986, when voters in the district approved a tax levy for operations. Prior to the vote, the district relied heavily on community donations. The district held regular fundraisers and every resident, including each firefighter, was asked to donate $50 annually to the district.
"We had quite a few that refused to pay because they didn't think we would survive. Not everyone supported the department when we first started," Kirchhoff said.
The district also relied on the construction skills of its firefighters. Firefighters painted donated trucks -- their second was an old milk truck -- and built a lot of their own tools. Kirchhoff said the department's first truck, a 1955 Chevrolet pumper, was purchased after several members of the department contributed some of their own money and signed a lease.
"Firefighters built their own fittings. The guys on the department, they were fabricators," said Kirchhoff, who's been with the department all 30 years. "It made us appreciate what we had."
Without the tax levy -- each household pays 30 cents per $100 assessed valuation -- many members of the department and district board members say they may not be as far along as they are today. On average, the tax brings in $225,000 annually, according to the department's treasurer, Kelly Allen. The district protects about 4,000 residents.
John Simmons, a district board member and former firefighter, said it's the one tax that will save residents money.
"You can't get a lower ISO rating without a constant source of funding," Simmons said.
The East County district ranks as a class seven, a rating given by the Insurance Services Office based on a department's water supply, the engines it operates and how well they respond to fire calls. Homeowners' insurance quotes are mostly based on the district's fire suppression rating and how close the home is to a fire station. The rating is given on a one to 10 scale and departments aim for a low rating.
Kirchhoff said to rank as a class seven without many hydrants in the district is almost unheard of, but they earned the rating due to how many pump trucks they store at their three stations. After the Indian Creek hall was built in in the mid-1990s -- the two others are at Egypt Mills and Hanover -- every homeowner in the district is five miles or less from a fire station.
"We try to use the taxpayer's money to their advantage and use it effectively," said Simmons, one of five board members representing the district.
East County elected last year to operate a five-member board after years of keeping a three-person panel. After a reorganization of the board and suggestions from the East County district community, members voted to expand the board.
Kirchhoff said a five-member board is the only way to go.
"Three-member boards have the potential for buddy systems," he said.
The recent reorganization was the second in board history, according to Kirchhoff. Nearly 20 years ago, a group of firefighters part of the initial department formation left, he said, due to a disagreement.
While Kirchhoff didn't want to elaborate, he said it had to do with some legal issues. The issue caused the chief at the time, Ron Cotner, and other members to resign.
"I never, ever, like to see people leave upset. Both times, people that left were dedicated to the department gave a lot of hours and parts of their lives to this," Kirchhoff said. "But, when you get differences of opinions and politics involved you have that potential."
Steve Mirly, now a captain in the district, joined East County in November 1990. While he is also on the Cape Girardeau Fire Department, a paid crew, he said he enjoys working for a volunteer district, too, because of the relationships you build with the community.
"A lot of us are neighbors. We can get there quicker and we know the area," Mirly said.
He added that often with a volunteer department the men and women who join come with different levels of experience.
"If you get someone with 30, 40 years of experience, you get someone who can share skills through their experience. It helps us develop our younger firefighters," Mirly said.
East County residents Heather and Derek Dickerson, with their young children John and Ellie, have lived in the district for nine years. Heather Dickerson said Sunday she and her family most likely wouldn't have moved to a district without fire protection.
"I hadn't really thought about it before, but I definitely wouldn't have wanted to go where there wasn't," she said. "I know they've been here a long time. It's a great service."
Egypt Mills, MO