WILLARD, Mo.– As the world continues to battling and adapting to the spread of COVID-19, Fire Chief Ken Scott and the rest of his crew continue keeping the people of Willard, Missouri safe; a mission that grows harder by the day, as their staff shrinks and their responsibilities grow.
There are three fire stations in Willard. There are, currently, only enough firefighters in town to occupy one. Together, they’re responsible for the roughly 70-square-mile territory. Add to that the additional territories Scott says were once manned by totally-volunteer fire crews that (for fear of COVID-19) no longer respond to calls.
“It’s getting down to manpower and fatigue,” Scott told Ozarks First reporter Bailey Strohl.
“You’re constantly trying to protect yourself, protect your partner, protect your family, and I think now after ten months, the monotony of that, the living under the microscope, it’s starting to really wear. Tempers are short.”
Scott says his department has been on emergency status for almost a year.
“When [a firefighter’s] wife is sick at the house and she’s got a COVID exposure, I have to send that guy home,” Scott laments. “So, that means another guy is standing up doing his job. And we have a limited overtime budget, so it’s putting more and more pressure on the resources that we are able to access.”
While Chief Scott deals with the frustration that comes with staffing shortfalls, the station’s call volume is up 25%. Scott says one of his crews worked 11 calls in a 24-hour shift this December.
Plenty of those calls don’t have nothing to do with fires.
“Honestly a lot of sick people don’t want to go to the hospital,” Scott says. “And I can’t say that I blame them. So they’re using our services here as a first responder or a community doctor or nurse.”
And with community health more of a concern than ever before, crews are required to don additional protective gear that, Scott says, adds about 5 minutes to their response times.
And where the crew would typically find a morale-boosting experience (i.e. those non-emergency, team-building moments), Chief Scott says, his team is left with nothing.
“There’s no birthday parties in our community room, there’s no outside trainings coming in. We’re limiting our public contact, and that’s one thing about being a fireman, you love the public contact, so you don’t get that.”