Chief Gary Mullins of the Whitesburg, Kentucky, fire department, keeps talking about how lucky his department is. 

He shows off new trucks and talks about how his department can afford to pay 5 full time firefighters. The department has a large station and is obviously prepared to deal with any challenge that comes its way, from forest fires (there’s an ATV for that) to house fires to situations that require a truck with a boom. 

But one piece of equipment stands out — a tanker truck, built for carrying water. It turns out that 25 percent of Whitesburg is without fire hydrants. The fire department had to buy a water truck to provide adequate fire protection to the entire town.

This is a challenge rarely faced by urban departments. Rural departments have a host of unique issues that they must respond to in order to provide adequate fire services.

Many rural departments are community-based: if a community wants the fire station, they must fund it themselves. No governmental entity decrees that a fire department should exist in Whitesburg, explained Mullins. 

The financial challenges to building a fire department are immense. Mullins estimates that a new building costs $100,000 and trucks cost $250,000. That’s not including firefighter uniforms, at $2,400 per firefighter, or air packs, at $6,000 apiece. Yet these organizations have to meet the same standards as their urban, taxpayer funded counterparts. “They just do it with less money,” Mullins said 

Training can suffer in a rural department. Even when firefighters are furnished with the latest equipment, its full potential cannot be utilized because the training required to do so is difficult to get. And specialized training costs money. 

Ronnie Day of the Kentucky Fire Commission rates recruitment of new firefighters and retention as one of the biggest challenges for rural fire departments. With 22,000 volunteer firefighters in Kentucky and only 4,500 paid urban firefighters, Kentucky is heavily dependent on volunteers to staff its rural departments. Chief Mullins said that you have to “practically bend over backwards to recruit and retain volunteers.” And since volunteers have jobs, training for the entire department becomes even more difficult.

Infrastructure challenges present serious issues for firefighters in rural areas. Oftentimes roads and bridges are not up to standards. (Chief Mullins told of one house fire in which the fire trucks had to use what is essentially an ATV trail on the side of a mountain to reach a house.) Bridges over creeks often cannot hold the weight of a fire truck, said Mullins. 

Narrow, gravel roads and driveways hemmed in by trees make it difficult to reach secluded houses, and when they are finally reached, it’s rare that they have usable water. (Both Mr. Mullins and Mr. Day identified water supply as one of the most critical issues that rural firefighters face today.) Departments must bring their own water in their own $100,000 truck. 

Even if they can reach the fires quickly, there’s often not much that can be done other than make sure the fire does not spread to neighboring buildings. “You’re probably going to save the neighbor’s house,” said Chief Mullins. Clara Strong, of nearby Seco, recently witnessed a house fire in her neighborhood. Despite the fact that the fire department was on the scene within 15 minutes, the house was lost. 

“It was one of the old (coal) camp houses,” she said. “The wood was over 100 years old. It burned so fast.” 

It was such a lost cause that the fire department didn’t spray much water on the house — that would just make cleanup more difficult. Instead, they focused on saving neighboring buildings. 

Water was hard to come by. There were hydrants, but one was inaccessible due to a poor road. The one they could use was a good distance down the hill. The fire department that responded was volunteer, of course. And one of the firefighters worked with Strong at Walmart. “They were nice people,” Strong said.

Rural firefighters take pride in their communities, and with good reason. The people they save are often their neighbors. “There’s an intrinsic benefit—you’re protecting your friends, family, and neighbors,” said Mullins. 

All the fundraisers that rural departments hold not only raise money, they bring the fire department and the community closer together. 

Volunteer fire departments are essential. They save lives, yes, but they also lower the cost of insurance. But insurance costs are based in part on how well the department is equipped — and that depends on money. If it is well funded and equipped, a fire department can save a community a good deal of money. “Would you be willing to pay taxes for a fire department?” Chief Mullins asked. 

Mullins and countless other fire chiefs across rural America have considerable reason to be proud. They’re often given little to work with and outperform expectations. Despite the difficulty they face on the job and in the budget books, they love what they do and they’re a crucial part of every community. 

So while Chief Mullins says that his department is “lucky,” it’s more than just that — it’s skill and dedication that enable rural firefighters to provide a service for which we are all incredibly grateful.

Jefferson Sinclair is an intern at the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, KY, and a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.