Adversity to Innovation

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Part 1, Adversity

Rising from the ashes might be a fitting metaphor to describe the dramatic transformation of a rural volunteer fire department in Southeastern Wyoming even if a little cliché. A dispute between the three person elected board of the fire protection district and the local volunteer fire department had led to dramatized headlines in local newspapers such as Yoder Feud Continues to Burn – Star Herald June 3, 2015; Yoder Fire Department Issues Remain Unresolved –Star Herald, June 10, 2015; Court Reinstates Original Yoder Fire Fighters – Star Herald, August 20, 2015.

Flash forward to 2022 and the only headlines you can find about the Yoder Volunteer Fire Department read like this one, A Year of Triumph, The Torrington Telegram declares about Yoder Fire in a January 11, 2022 public interest story. After a court sided with the Yoder Fire Department in 2015 regarding issues of authority and autonomy the district board faced reelection and old members were soon voted out by the public.

I knew from reading the headlines and hearing rumors that I was stepping in to a mess when I was first elected back in 2016…” says current Board President of the Yoder Fire Protection District (YFPD), Brent L. Anderson, “… but I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge.” Anderson had served on the board twelve years prior, ending in 2004 and felt a personal connection to the Yoder Fire services. This is what motivated him to run for reelection in 2016.

The new three person district board composed of Anderson, Dempsey Hansen, Treasurer, and Jamie Gibb, Secretary, set about in 2016 to mend relations with the volunteers of the Fire Department and rebuild burnt bridges.

Honestly, it wasn’t easy…” says Hansen who took over the duties of Treasurer. The previous board left limited financial paperwork for the new board; they were receiving multiple overdue notices and angry letters from vendors who were owed money. “…with limited records of what the previous board had been up to we were flying blind and had to basically create everything from scratch”, Hansen added.

One of the first actions Anderson took as the new board President was to ask Goshen County Sheriff Don Murphy to do an official investigation to see if there had been any wrong doing by the previous board. What Murphy discovered was there actually wasn’t much evidence to look at. Few, if any, receipts of previous purchases, scant financial paperwork and not very organized. It was obvious from the checking account records that many checks were written to the local Coop but there was no backup documentation to explain many of the expenses and Coop did not keep copies of receipts far enough back to aid in the Sheriff’s investigation. Meanwhile, utility bills had not been paid, vendors for fire equipment were sending late notices and the Dun and Bradstreet rating of the Yoder Fire District was rated “low” in all categories. The Duns report is significant because grant funders often use this unbiased rating system to determine if an organization is worthy of receiving grant funds. As it stood in 2016 the Fire District was in bad shape, it owed vendors money, had a poor credit rating and relations with the Fire Department needed to be mended.

We weren’t perfect and we made mistakes as we were rebuilding the district…” Anderson admits, “we missed some important deadlines with the County and had to learn a lot of new things in the first couple years.” In all fairness, running a District is not easy; district board members receive no pay and they are expected to be experts on the Wyoming State Statues, accounting, bookkeeping, fiscal management, organizational management, legal issues and a host of other corporate processes and procedures. It’s a true part-time job with no pay.

The current District board members agree that training and guidance from people like Cindy Kenyon, County Clerk, and encouragement from the fire community such as Bill Law, County Fire Warden, went a long way to helping the Yoder Fire District get on firm footing and evolve into the professional organization it is today. Goshen County under the leadership of Cindy Kenyon and Bill Law provides all districts with annual trainings and a binder of important training materials which Yoder used to their benefit.

The team efforts have paid off for the YFPD as shown by the Duns report. The Duns rating has been at the highest rating for the past five years which is also reinforced by the fact that Yoder Fire has been awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in new grants to improve services to the local community. One of Yoder Fires greatest assets is its willingness to partner with others and seek innovation. Many of the innovations on the Yoder Fire Department are not only exciting but unprecedented within the state of Wyoming.

Part 2 Innovation

Innovation is more than just refusing to do the same old thing. It has been said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is one definition of insanity. Unfortunately, it is also true that innovators are often accused of “being crazy” by those who are comfortably stuck in the status quo.

The Yoder Fire Department brought to the District’s attention the issue of low volunteerism across the nation. The National Fire Protection Association’s U.S. Fire Department Profile Report showed, “The volunteer firefighter numbers for 2016 and 2017 are the lowest recorded levels since the NFPA began the survey in 1983.” An April 2019 article in Governing magazine revealed, “The number of volunteer firefighters has declined from 300,000 in the 1970s to 38,000 in 2018...” Considering the population in the United States has grown by over 120 million people in the same time frame; these statistics are staggering. This trend has continued through 2022. It is a true national crisis.

Wyoming is not immune from the alarming volunteer firefighter shortage and COVID had additional impacts on numbers nationwide. Yoder Fire was determined to buck the national trend and focus on strategies, not only to maintain the volunteers they had, but actually increase numbers. The Fair Labors Standards Act (FLSA) allows volunteer firefighters to be paid stipends under their “nominal fee” rule. Yoder Fire Chief, Justin Burkart, had read about how other fire departments in other states implemented stipend programs to increase volunteer recruitment. After extensive research Chief Burkart presented a plan to the District and received approval to apply to the SAFER Grant program. Part of the requested funds was to start a stipend program based on models from other successful programs. The grant was received in 2018. This grant also paid for the LED sign in the town of Yoder (a partnership with the town) and upgrades to the fire hall.

The SAFER grant stipend program was a joint partnership with the Veteran Fire Department.  Since 2018 we have been able to provide a small stipend to volunteers averaging $350 per quarter.  This is based on training and response call attendance.  Additionally, the grant pays for yearly physicals and new bunker gear for new members. Volunteers sacrifice hundreds of hours of time away from their families, the stipends are just a small way to appreciate their commitment and offset some of personal expenses associated with being volunteers.

Volunteer recruitment and retainment at the Yoder Fire Department has increased even while national statistics still look bleak. Twelve new volunteer firefighters have been recruited since 2018 – a 50% increase from 2016 numbers! The SAFER grant has greatly contributed to this positive outcome.

Along with a focus on increased participation of volunteers Yoder Fire has focused on building its infrastructure and creating a long-term sustainability plan to carry the department into the next decade. In 2016 they built Brush 3 with grant funds from SLIB ($93,750) and the USDA ($50,000). In 2020 Yoder and Veteran Fire again teamed up to apply for a $120,958 grant to replace air packs for both departments.

Also in 2020 Yoder Fire custom built Brush 4, again with SLIB (217,500) and USDA ($50,000) grants. This is an example of another innovative partnership. The Blanchat fire truck manufacture did not have much experience building brush trucks for our rural terrain and they were fascinated by some of our special requests on the Brush 3 build. When it came time to build Brush 4 they were excited to partner with Yoder Fire to combine their patented technology and expertise with Yoder’s special requests and build a truly one of a kind vehicle, Brush 4. It was affectionately nicknamed ‘Ironman’ after the Marvel movie creation by fictional tech genius, Tony Stark. That year, Yoder Fire also received a $17,454 SHSP grant to upgrade firefighter communication equipment.

Yoder Brush 3

One of the cornerstones of Yoder Fire’s success is its focus on partnerships, genuine collaboration and innovation. The relationship between the Department and the District has never been better, vendors such as Blanchat manufacturing and others find mutual benefit in working with Yoder Fire. Other organizations such as Veteran Fire and the Wyoming State Forestry have shared publicly their appreciation of Yoder Fire’s collaborative and innovative nature. Governor, Mark Gordon, even referenced Yoder Fire in a public speech, encouraging others to look to their example.

Yoder Fire became aware that there was a high need for bulldozers to support Federal Firefighting efforts. Not only does one need to be a heavy equipment operator but they also need their firefighter red card. Yoder had a new recruit in 2019 that was willing to use his personal equipment to meet this national need if Yoder Fire was willing to sponsor the equipment.

The Wyoming State Forestry provided technical assistance on how to create such a contract and both parties hire attorneys to draft and review the agreement. Once approved the contract has become yet another innovative collaboration that has received much praise. The equipment owner has a majority of the risk by providing the equipment, its upkeep and maintenance and it is his responsibility to maintain personnel on the equipment. Yoder Fire provides the sponsorship and liability insurance coverage. As such Yoder Fire keeps 10% of all proceeds generated from the contract.

Experts in the field of non-profits and grant writing have been warning that grant funding in the coming decades may become more and more scarce. As such Yoder Fire and the District have invested in a long-term sustainability plan. The past grants we received have allowed us to build new trucks and now we have enough equipment to be more active on Federal Fire and generate District revenue for years to come. We currently have nine vehicles and enough fire trucks to manage all local response needs and keep crews working on Federal Fire whenever possible.

A Federal Fire crew consists of one truck and two or three firefighters. Crews do a fourteen day rotation and then take a mandatory rest. Depending on the type of truck requested, the government pays fire resources around $1,900 per day for the use of the trucks on fires across the nation. In a fourteen day stint the District makes well over $26,000. In 2021 -2022 Yoder Fire has brought in approximately 2 million dollars in revenue. This money will be reinvested into continued up-keep, replacement of older equipment and to provide a means for reaching other long-term goals.

When the SAFER grant ends we will use set-aside funds to continue our successful stipend program well into the future. The Yoder Fire Hall is in need of expansion at some point in the future. With the revenues we are generating through our Federal Fire participation we hope to be able to build on to the Fire Hall and not have to burden the tax payers with any of the cost. These Federal Fire revenues will also help Yoder Fire do more to give back to the community. We are currently investigating upgrades that have potential to save District property owners money on their property insurance.

More importantly, having Yoder Firefighters serve their country on Federal Fire gives them some of the best hands-on training possible. Firefighters also benefit from being paid by Federal Fire for their services. Firefighters bring that revenue back into the community to be spent at local businesses and to support the community. Firefighters bring their experience, skills and talents back into the community where they can serve their neighbors, friends and families as highly trained professionals.

Yoder on Federal Fire in New Mexico, 2022