MORGAN COUNTY, Mo. – International Firefighters Day is celebrated annually on May 4.

OzarksFirst spoke with Deputy Fire Chief John Scheper of the Gravois Fire Protection District in Morgan County, Mo, about the necessity of volunteer firefighters and their importance to the community.

He said that the Gravois Fire Protection District has two career firehouses as well as five volunteer firehouses, in addition to two fire boats.

“We protect 67 shoreline miles of the Lake of the Ozark,” said Scheper.

Scheper said that the need for volunteer firefighters in Missouri is “approaching a crisis right now that is at critical mass.”

“There’s a nationwide problem with the lack of volunteer fire departments. I don’t think that there’s a single volunteer agency that I can point to that has more than enough volunteers,” said Scheper.

Scheper explained that about 7 out of every 10 firefighters in Missouri are volunteers.

“Those volunteer ranks in numbers have been on a steady decline for the last 15-20 years. I don’t know what some of these communities are going to do.”

He also explained that volunteering at a fire station doesn’t have to include running into burning buildings.

“People that are, you know, limited physically can still do vital jobs and roles for their fire department. This is just absolutely necessary… if you really want to do something to help the community, stop by your local Volunteer Fire Department and see what they need; see how you can pitch in and help. And become part of the solution.”

In addition to his duties at the fire station, Scheper also teaches future firefighters.

“My favorite days in this business are when you have a young person that you can tell by the look. In their eye. That you’ve connected with them and they get it. And I think for me personally, when I see that happen and when I see young firefighters turn into old firefighters and they develop the good habits of the job and they understand their job, that’s for me the most rewarding day.”

Scheper said that his department doesn’t spend the majority of its time actually fighting flames.

Instead, he says, “Being a part of the solution, you know in your local area, I think that’s what I find the most satisfying. You know, at the end of the day, it’s not what you see in the movies. A lot of times it’s helping your neighbor with something, helping someone change a tire.”

He said about 80% of the district’s responses are for medical emergencies.

“Unfortunately what happens is a lot of times when we go to emergencies, you’re visiting people on what could be perhaps the worst day of their life. So you know that what that parlays into is, you know, a chance to make that just a little bit better for those people, whether it’s fixing their problem, making their problem better, or just being a shoulder to lean on. “

Scheper said that he wants to encourage the community, and everyone around the Ozarks, to be aware of fire danger when burning outside.

“The high volume of wildland fires that we have, you know, just because you get a little bit of rain just because the grass looks green, that does not mean that there’s no fire danger. So you know, check those websites, you know, call your local fire department, call your dispatch center, and find out.”

He said that wildland fires like the one “Francis the Armadillo” was rescued from last weekend, are extremely dangerous.

“Responding to wildland fires is actually one of the more dangerous activities that we do as an agency. So, you know, let’s not accidentally burn things down. Let’s not put people in harm’s way.”