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'It's critical': Lack of volunteers puts NKY community at risk of losing fire department

If the community loses fire services, residents could end up paying more on their home insurance or be dropped altogether
Petersburg Fire Department
Posted at 11:42 PM, Feb 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-10 23:54:32-05

PETERSBURG, Ky. — A Boone County community is bracing for the possibility of longer wait times and higher costs as the future of their fire department hangs in the balance.

The Petersburg Fire Board held an emergency meeting to address ongoing staffing issues.

A vital resource in Petersburg for more than 60 years, the fire department has been solely a volunteer effort since 1959. For the past year, however, there haven't been enough people to step in and suit up.

"We did pretty good up until last March and some of my seasoned members moved out of the community," Chief Bill Birkle said.

Birkle has led the department for the last 47 years. He said there are 16 volunteers on the roster but most of them live outside Petersburg in other Boone County communities so it takes them a while to get to the station.

He and the captain are currently the only two local people best equipped to respond on a moment's notice. But at 73, Birkle said he's not able to do much of the physical work anymore and depends on younger volunteers.

Birkle wants to get his numbers up over 20, hoping new volunteers are close enough to keep call-out times within a 5-minute window.

The need isn't just for firefighters. Birkle said Petersburg only sees an average of four house fires a year, most fire calls are non-emergency, but it's a different story for EMS. Those are the department's most frequent calls for service and the ambulance cannot leave the station without at least two certified EMTs inside.

If PFD cannot close the gap and find enough people to cover the community 24/7, the department would be forced to close its doors. If that happens, Petersburg would have to rely on neighboring community departments, resulting in even longer response times.

"If we have to wait for mutual aid company to get here, it takes them 15 to 20 minutes," Birkle said. "A fire doubles every five minutes. If somebody's having a heart attack, you have minutes to get to them."

It's a concerning thought for lifelong resident Steve McGuire.

"It's scary because you don't know what kind of service you're going to get," McGuire said.

His biggest concern is for EMS response, McGuire said. He lives across the street from the fire department but his 91-year-old mother lives at the top of a hill and he worries how long she would have to wait if something bad were to ever happen.

And it's not just longer wait times. Neighbors could also face higher insurance rates.

ISO ratings are determined by the level of fire protection in an area. The numbers are based on how well a community is prepared for fires and affects insurance premiums.

The better the service the lower the cost, and Petersburg currently sits at a 5.5.

"A 10 is no fire department," Birkle said. "So right now we have a rating that allows people's insurance to be less."

It's an added burden to what would be an already difficult situation if local fire services were stalled.

McGuire hopes it never becomes reality.

"They revived my dad before the ambulance could have got there anyway," he said.​ "That won't be anymore if we lose them."

You have to be at least 18 and have graduated high school or have a GED to volunteer.

PFD will provide all necessary training. People can call or stop by the station to apply.

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