The Allen County Rural Volunteer Fire Department lies west of Iola, tucked away in “the barn,” a small garage located next to the RV park and across the highway from the Iola Cemetery.
Darrell Baughn, the department’s chief, has been a volunteer firefighter for 31 years and his son, Travis, is also a volunteer firefighter.
They have an experience that is unmatched with the department, and a passion as well.
“We get burnt just as bad as any other firefighter, our lives are on the line,” Darrell said. “We bleed just like the next guy.”
The department consists of 14 men, all of whom volunteer a substantial amount of their time protecting the rural areas that are not covered by the Iola Fire Department.
The small garage is packed full of years of ingenuity, resourcefulness and hard work. Travis said they have four trucks that are specifically designed to fight different types of fires. Two trucks are equipped as “brush units” — 4-wheel drive vehicles mounted with equipment to fight grass and brush fires. Travis said they are the most common sort of fire the department faces.
The next truck is what the volunteers have dubbed as “the pumper.” Bearing a similar resemblance to a traditional fire truck, it is equipped with standard fire-fighting hoses for structure and vehicle fires.
Lastly, resting outside of the garage under a shelter is “the tanker.” This old military truck has 6-wheel drive and is designed to take on just about any fire the department encounters.
“It’s a multi-purpose truck,” Travis said. “It’s one of the better trucks in the county.”
The truck was acquired from Bourbon County, after the volunteer department received a large grant and didn’t have the time to overhaul it. When the Allen County volunteers got the truck, it was still in full military outfit — not exactly ideal for fire fighting.
Volunteer Dan Ryder said they had to take on the responsibility of repainting the truck and making it ready for the department. Now, “the tanker” is equipped with a drop tank (a large water reservoir meant to hold 1,000 gallons of water during a fire, it packs down to about the size of a refrigerator laid out on its side), hoses, and any other equipment need for fire fighting.
Darrell said the department has always had to rely on themselves for repairs and adjustments for the vehicles. Travis said the department receives about $18,000 a year in county funding.
“Back in the day, we really had to be MacGyver repairing the vehicles,” Darrell said.
But, the department is a far cry from what it used to be.
The rural fire department began in the 1960s from the suggestion of Iolan Ray Pershall, Darrell said, because Pershall’s house was not protected by city forces.
The force was started with one old truck.
“If one guy showed up to fight a fire, they were doing good,” Darrell said. “We have really grown in just the last seven years, as opposed to the good ‘ol boys with a truck.”
In fact, several of the volunteers are certified nationally as firefighters, including volunteer Byron McDonald. McDonald said his dream has and always will be to work for the New York City Fire Department, though he admits that he is “not there yet.”
Travis said that Dan Ryder has a deep background as a professional firefighter, and brings a lot of helpful knowledge to the department as well. Several of the volunteers took firefighter certification courses through the State Firefighter Association in 2007.
Monthly, the volunteers participate in classes that include powerpoints and presentations about fire fighting techniques and protocols.
“We don’t fish or hunt, we have to have something to do,” Darrell joked.
McDonald contributes his grant writing skills to the department as well. He has received grant money in 2009, 2010 and 2012 from various organizations to fund new bunker gear (suits worn by firefighters), the drop tank for “the tanker” and SCBA apparatuses, which Travis described as SCUBA tanks, but meant for on-ground use.
As for recently, the volunteers agreed they are no longer limited by their equipment, and Allen Countians would be hard-pressed to find a volunteer fire department that is more well prepared to fight fires.
Ryder said the volunteers even lend help to neighboring counties from time to time, including Neosho and Bourbon counties.
“Assistance can always be counted on,” Ryder said. “We are all on the same team.”
Unlike a paid firefighter, Darrell said the men have no other option but to take on careers of their own. McDonald works for Olathe Fire Equipment, Travis works for Gates Manufacturing, Darrell is an electric lineman for the city of Iola and Brad Yoder, another volunteer, is the Recreation Director for the City of Iola.
“Not a single dime from the county goes into our pockets,” Travis said.
But, the Allen County Rural Volunteer Fire Department is a tight-knit group of men who are dedicated to keeping people safe from fires, at the sacrifice of their time and even their safety.
Their technology, gear and training has only improved over the past 50 years, and McDonald said they are always looking to better themselves.
“We are not the hicks of yesterday, we are all brothers in firefighting.”