There isn’t much the firefighters of the Missouri State Fair Fire Department haven’t seen during the department’s 50 years of existence. In addition to the usual medical calls, electrical fires and vehicle accidents, firefighters have also dealt with golf cart accidents, portable toilet explosions, a monkey bite, a peacock on the loose and a kangaroo that somehow escaped its cage.
“We learned kangaroos are mean,” MSFFD Chief Rick Dozier said with a laugh. “Nothing surprises us here anymore. You never really know what a day will bring at the state fair.”
In 1962, the Firefighters Association of Missouri and then-Missouri State Fair director W.H. Ritzenthaler collaborated on an effort to form the MSSFD, originally to educate the public about fire safety. It wasn’t until 1965 that the department officially took over firefighting duties, setting up under a 250-square-foot Army surplus tent, until the permanent fire station was built in 1968. And while a few things have changed over the years, including upgrades in equipment and expanded facilities, one thing has remained the same — it’s still a completely volunteer fire department.
“We take our vacation days to come out here and work,” said MSFFD Public Information Officer Cpt. Joe Jennings. “Seventy percent of our staff are here all 11 days of the fair and the other guys cycle in for three or four days at a time, but for the most part, this is our summer vacation.”
With a budget of about $15,000 per year, the MSFFD is also one of a kind in the U.S., Jennings said. Most state fairs contract out fire department work with private companies or local departments, but the fair has a unique 11-day only department.
“It’s funny, but coming here, it’s like summer camp for us,” Dozier said. “Every August we come out and see people we only see once a year. It’s fun.”
Members of the MSFFD start work a few days before the fair opens, checking all the permanent buildings, temporary structures, travel trailers and tents on the 400-acre grounds. In cooperation with the state Fire Marshal’s office, the MSFFD also conducts fire inspections, which includes all vendor areas as well as the carnival rides, and replaces batteries in smoke detectors. By the time they leave, some volunteers have spent 16 days on the grounds.
“Luckily, we have a TV (in the fire station) now. Before, we had no idea what was going on in the outside world,” joked MSFFD Assistant Chief Robert “R.B.” Brown.
The days start with truck checks — four fire departments have donated engine trucks this year: Boles Fire District, Jefferson City Fire Department, Johnson County Fire Protection District and St. Clair Fire Protection District. Then comes a station cleaning and general meeting to update volunteers about what’s going on during the fair that day. After that there’s fire crew or EMS training and, “always public relations stuff,” said Jennings.
“Just like when we started, a big part of what we do is educating the public on fire safety,” he said. “Whether that’s showing how to properly use a fire extinguisher or just having Smokey the Bear out, it’s important to be seen in the community.”
“Having the fire trucks out, that’s great public relations, too,” Dozier added. “When people walk by, we always hear, ‘Hey, that’s my fire truck.’ Of course they mean, ‘Hey, that’s a fire truck from my town,’ but people are paying tax dollars for these trucks. They take pride in them.”
There hasn’t been a major structure fire on the grounds since 1989 when a trailer full of stuffed animals caught on fire, but smaller fires do pop up now and again. Brown said the sheep and dairy barns have caught on fire and the MSFFD has been called out to major wrecks and accidents but medical calls are the most frequent.
In the 1980s EMT services were added to the fire department’s duties, just in time, too. Dozier and Brown can both cite examples of babies almost being born on the fairgrounds.
“When women get close to their due date, doctors will tell them to come walk the fair,” Brown said. “We haven’t had any born right on the grounds in a while, but we’ve been plenty close.”
Most of the time EMTs are checking out small injuries and heat-related issues and should anything major come up, there’s always the Missouri Disaster Medical Team’s mobile ER unit.
“They do everything from stitches to X-rays there,” Brown said. “I think the only thing they can’t do is surgery.”
Jennings noted everything on the fairgrounds is done free of charge. Most of the medical supplies are donated and there are no bills sent out afterward, regardless of insurance.
“It’s part of our process of giving back,” he said. “Once you step on the grounds, we’ll take care of you.”
Both Dozier and Brown said “giving back” was the reason they’ve come back to the fair for the past 19 and 17 years respectively. Jennings, who has volunteered seven years, said most firefighters are hooked the first year.
“Whether it’s a million degrees out or there are storms, whatever happens, it’s still fun,” he said. “You’re part of a big family, not only with the volunteers who come every year, but also the Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers (who work during the fair) and the local guys.”
The local guys — the Sedalia Fire Department — haven’t always liked the MSFFD on “their turf.”
“Before my time, there wasn’t a lot of love between volunteer fire departments and union departments,” said Sedalia Fire Chief Mike Ditzfeld. “There was some animosity there. Over the years through, those relationships have really strengthened. (The SFD) is one of the few union departments that’s a member of the Firefighters Association of Missouri and we’re pretty proud of that fact.”
Ditzfeld noted FFAM sponsored a funeral assistance team during Sedalia firefighter Rick Morris’ line-of-duty death in 2008.
“That was something that was much appreciated and needed at the time, it really helped strengthen those bonds,” he said. “We have a great working relationship now and have gotten to know the people who come back every year.
“We’re over there for dinner quite a bit,” Ditzfeld added with a laugh. “They’re great hosts.”
And the relationship goes both ways. During the wind storm last year, two structure fires broke out in the city, prompting the MSFFD to send help to the SFD.
“The great thing is, we take those working relationships back with us when we go home,” Dozier said. “It’s a huge collaborative effort.”
Dozier is ending his three-year term as chief this year, but he said he’ll be back as a volunteer next year and the next, until “they kick me out.”
“Any fire department will tell you they’re a big family, this fire department is no different,” he said. “For the past 50 years, we’ve been here during the state fair, helping out. And we’ll continue that for the next 50.”