If you pull a fire alarm in any large U.S. city, it's likely that paid firefighters waiting at a nearby station will quickly respond. But seven out of 10 American firefighters are actually volunteers. They cover vast sections of the country, making up an aging network that is increasingly understaffed and overworked.
On a blazing hot day recently in western Kansas, two men have rushed from their jobs to douse a grass fire, for free.
"If somebody wasn't here to do it, this could get out of hand real quick," says Jason Lonnberg, with the Jetmore Volunteer Fire Department.
Volunteers keep fires from getting out of hand in most rural communities, and many of these departments are barely hanging on.
It's not uncommon these days to find rural firefighters in their 60s or 70s. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, about a third of small town volunteer firefighters are now over 50. That's double the number in the 1980s.
And while volunteer firefighters are trending older, they are answering many more calls.
In tiny Cedar Vale, Kan., for instance, the fire barn is full of old firetrucks, but finding people to operate them is a challenge. Like many remote, rural towns, Cedar Vale is in steep decline, and volunteer Dwight Call says that undermines recruiting efforts.
"There's no jobs here," says Call, who sports a dirty work shirt and a huge white mustache.
"So if you live here and you're working age, you're probably driving someplace to work," he says. "Or, you're working one of two places in town that probably aren't going to let you take off to fight fire."
Call says that 50 years ago, when Cedar Vale had lots of small businesses, the volunteer fire department was well-staffed. Now many area residents have a harder time piecing together a living.
"I work days and nights, and hours that are just ridiculous," says Isaac McNown, as he stops in Cedar Vale for gas. McNown says he works nights, plus two days a week at a livestock feed mill. The rest of his time he devotes to his own tree trimming business.
The volunteer shortage has pushed Cedar Vale, like many other rural fire departments, to turn increasingly to people like 62-year-old Montra Beeler.
"I'm a firefighter. I drive trucks, fight fires," states Beeler. "I'm kind of the momma of the fire barn."
Beeler, who barely clears 5 feet, says she has a hard time seeing over the hood of these big old firetrucks, but she is a crucial first responder here.
"Right now, the three of us that respond most of the time are me, my son Marshal, and Zeke," explains Beeler. "We're the three that usually show up to go to car wrecks, to motorcycle wrecks, to fires."
Jeff Mortimer, who's with the volunteer fire department in Mayfield, Kan., says the workload keeps mounting.
"When I first started all we did was fires," recalls Mortimer. "Now we're power line arcing, to accidents, hazmat, technical rescue. You know, all of the above."
Not to mention medical emergencies. Across the country, calls to volunteer fire departments have tripled in the past three decades. And that's slammed volunteer EMS services like the one Chrissy Bartell runs in Norwich, Kan.
The only doctor in town, whose office used to take up a whole building, left several years ago, Bartell says.
Now, this volunteer ambulance service is the only medical provider in Norwich, and it covers nearly 300 square miles.
"Call volumes are up tremendously, and I don't see that changing, except to increase," frets Bartell.
There's no easy solution. Going to paid fire and EMS everywhere would cost a fortune. A National Fire Protection Association study figured that volunteer firefighters donate about $140 billion worth of labor each year. Even so, many departments have a hard time affording basic equipment, according to Kimberly Quiros with the National Volunteer Fire Council.
"Time and again you hear stories of departments that, you know, are using old gear, that's not necessarily the safest, or old firetrucks and old equipment, or not able to afford the resources that they really need," says Quiros.
And that can affect most anybody. Though bigger cities have paid fire service, volunteers cover most of the country. So if you have a wreck on a rural stretch of highway, say Interstate 70 in Gove County, Kan., Steve Hirsch says you'd better hope it happens near the county's one well-equipped fire department.
"Three of the four do not have any rescue equipment whatsoever. So you can go 30 miles through there, and there's no rescue equipment," says Hirsch.
Hirsch is first vice-chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, and he serves on the volunteer fire department in tiny Hoxie, Kan. Which, Hirsch boasts, is fully staffed.
"There are some departments that are just begging to get volunteers. Out here, we don't have that much of a problem. Recruiting is one of those 24/7/365 [days a year] deals. We just never stop recruiting."
Like many volunteer firefighters, Hirsch is deeply committed to what he's doing. Because without volunteers and departments like his, he says, huge swaths of America would just burn up.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
With all the recent natural disasters - hurricanes, tropical storms, wildfires - the role of first responders has been front and center. In densely populated areas, these are all paid professionals. But in rural America, 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers. And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, that system of volunteers is under stress.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: It's 104 degrees in western Kansas. And on the side of this highway, just south of Jetmore, two guys in heavy protective gear are finishing up a grass fire. Jason Lonnberg raced from his construction job to fight this blaze for free.
JASON LONNBERG: If somebody wasn't here to do it, it could get out of hand real quick.
MORRIS: Volunteer fire departments are keeping fires in check for almost 9 out of 10 American communities. But some of these departments are barely hanging on.
Where are we here?
DAVID BOHANNAN: Cedar Vale, Kan., Chautauqua Fire District, Number One.
MORRIS: Volunteer David Bohannan shows off a shed full of old fire trucks. But he says finding people to operate them is a challenge.
BOHANNAN: This department is the smallest it's ever been.
MORRIS: Cedar Vale, like lots of remote rural towns, is in decline. And volunteer Dwight Call says that undermines recruiting efforts.
DWIGHT CALL: There's no jobs here. So if you live here and you're working age, you're probably driving somewhere to work or you're working at one or two places here in town that probably aren't going to let you take off to fight fire.
MORRIS: So Cedar Vale, like many other rural fire departments, is increasingly turning to people like 62-year-old Mantra Beeler.
MANTRA BEELER: I am a firefighter. I drive trucks, fight fires. I'm kind of the mama of the fire barn.
MORRIS: Beeler, who barely cracks 5 feet tall, says she has a hard time seeing over the dash of some of these big fire trucks. But she is a crucial first responder here.
BEELER: Right now, the three of us that respond most of the time are me, my son Marshal and Zeke. We're the three that usually show up to go to car wrecks, to motorcycle wrecks, to fires.
DICK GOODRUN: Keeping volunteers is kind of tough nowadays.
MORRIS: Dick Goodrun runs this fire equipment supply business in Mayfield, Kan. He's also a fire chief here. I started 60 years ago.
MORRIS: You've been a volunteer firefighter for 60 years?
GOODRUN: Yes, I have.
MORRIS: How old are you?
GOODRUN: (Laughter) Sixty plus 14.
MORRIS: According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, about a third of small town volunteer firefighters are now over 50 - double the number in the 1980s. Meantime, Jeff Mortimer with the Mayfield Department says the workload keeps mounting.
JEFF MORTIMER: When I first started it, all we did was fires. Now we're a power line arching to accidents, HAZMAT, you know, technical rescue - you know, all of the above.
MORRIS: Not to mention, medical emergencies. Across the country, cost of volunteer fire departments have tripled in the last three decades - tripled. And that's slammed volunteer EMS services, like the one Chrissy Bartell runs in Norwich, Kan.
CHRISSY BARTELL: This is my office. This entire building used to be a doctor's office for our community. And several years ago, we lost having a doctor in town.
MORRIS: Now this volunteer ambulance service is the only medical provider in town and covers nearly 300 square miles. Bartell says it struggles to keep up.
BARTELL: Call volumes are up tremendously. And I don't foresee that changing other than just to increase.
MORRIS: There's no easy solution to the growing pressure. Going to paid fire and EMS everywhere, would cost a fortune. National Fire Protection Association study figured that volunteer firefighters donate about $140 billion worth of labor each year. Even so, many departments have a hard time affording basic equipment. Though, there are real departments attracting sufficient funding and able-bodied volunteers.
Steve Hirsch here behind the wheel of a big gleaming fire truck in tiny Hoxie, Kan., says it takes sustained effort.
STEVE HIRSCH: Recruitment is one of those 24/7/365 deals. We just never stop recruiting.
MORRIS: Like many volunteer firefighters, Hirsch is deeply committed to what he's doing because without volunteers and departments like his, he says huge swaths of America would just burn up. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENEMIES' "MORSE CODE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.