In a fire or medical emergency, we rely on our heroic first responders to be there in a time of need. But what if they didn’t show up?
It is a reality that residents living in the Woodcrest Fire Department jurisdiction said they are living.
The Woodcrest Fire Department is an all-volunteer operation north of Edmond in Logan County. The department is made up of 17 volunteers.
A News 9 investigation has confirmed since 2019, at least three people have died, and one house burned down on calls that went unanswered by the Woodcrest Fire Department.
It’s hard not to enjoy a beautiful summer afternoon in Oklahoma, but out Wayne Bush’s front window that beauty fades and dark thoughts set in of what if.
“It still haunts me, seeing him there — wake up and laying there,” said Bush.
Bush was helping his brother-in-law, Greg Jones, wire a new house across the street in November 2019 when Jones fell off a ladder.
Jones hit the ground headfirst.
“He was gasping and grunting kind of,” said Bush. “I immediately called 911.”
Precious moments passed as Bush waited for the Woodcrest Fire Department, just miles away, to show up. They never came, but an ambulance did 15 minutes after calling 911.
Bush was taken to the hospital where he died.
You can’t do (anything) you know; I’ve been trained in CPR but he didn’t need CPR,” said Bush. “He was breathing, he was struggling but he was breathing. Heart was beating. I already checked all of that.”
The feeling of being helpless is something Velva Schnase knows. Just last month her good friend Donald Thompson suffered a sudden heart attack on Waterloo Road. Again, just miles away, the Woodcrest Fire Department was called and never showed up.
“I don’t care if it (ambulance) was coming from Guthrie or Edmond, there is a fire station right there,” Schnase told a Logan County sheriff deputy. “Somebody should have been here immediately.”
“I was afraid for my friend. Nobody should have to watch the life leave someone’s eyes while performing CPR on a loved one,” said Schnase. “It’s not OK. What happened was not OK.”
Schnase and her husband spent nearly a half hour performing CPR until an ambulance arrived from Oklahoma City. By then it was too late.
“Even with my eyes open, I don’t have to close them, I can still see his face,” said Schnase. “That is the hardest part, is that image.
The Woodcrest Fire Department is funded in two ways. A section of the jurisdiction is under Title 19 where property taxes fund the department.
The rest of Woodcrest’s jurisdiction is classified as Title 18 which is subscription based where customers pay $100 a year for service.
Woodcrest continues to solicit their services from citizens from a building that was recently built.
“If people knew around here what was really going on, they would be appalled,” said Schanse. “They would probably be speaking out because the country is not where people are quiet when there is a problem.”
A News 9 investigation revealed in 2019, Woodcrest’s response rate averaged around 66%. In 2020, the response rate increased to an approximate 67%.
We compared that to two other departments with a similar staff and call volume.
In 2020, the Jones Fire Department responded to around 81% of their calls. The Meeker Fire Department responded to around 80% of calls.
Because volunteer fire departments aren’t staffed around the clock, response rates are never usually 100%.
When Woodcrest doesn’t respond neighbors at the Oak Cliff Fire Department to the west, with a paid full-time staff, step in.
That means wear and tear on vehicles and staff, the Oak Cliff Fire Department isn’t being compensated for.
“I would like to ask them what would they do if it was their family and they lived out here and nobody came,” said Schnase.
It turns out there is very little oversight in Oklahoma when it comes to fire protection districts like Woodcrest.
While county commissioners have some control over county fire departments, fire protection districts only have themselves to answer to.
After multiple requests for an interview Woodcrest’s Chairwoman, Teri Coffenbow, cut off communication after the department recently hired an attorney to speak to media.
Woodcrest’s attorney, Gary James of Oklahoma City, released this statement on behalf of the Woodcrest Fire Chief, Luke Young.
“Woodcrest Fire Department is a Rural Fire Protection District established in 1972. No one on the Department is a career paid firefighter. Our personnel have full time jobs and livelihoods.
Woodcrest Fire serves the citizens of our 56 square mile district in southeast Logan County. Woodcrest Fire is not a municipal department and not located in a city or town. Woodcrest Fire is funded through memberships, or a small portion of citizens property taxes. This funding provides equipment for firefighters, training, tools, apparatus, fuel, insurance, utilities and various other items needed for a fire department. These funds do not pay for career paid firefighters to be on call 24/7.
Woodcrest strives to provide the best Fire and EMS services possible. Our district has seen rapid growth in the last 5 years, which has also increased our call volume. We strive to make as many emergency calls to our citizens as possible. Much progress has been made in recent years to provide a better facility conducive for our volunteers and future paid personnel. This is part of the foundation laid to provide a better service to our citizens for the future as a first response agency. Plans are in the works to provide paid firefighters in the near future.
Being a Volunteer Firefighter is tremendous commitment of time and effort. This means time away from their families, spouse, hobbies, their children’s events and sometimes even their jobs. It is a selfless sacrifice. We are proud of all our firefighters and the sacrifices they make for our citizens. Presently, we have 17 volunteer firefighters, with a capacity to have 30 volunteers. We encourage anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter in the Woodcrest Fire District to reach out and apply.”
When asked to elaborate on “plans are in the works to provide paid firefighters in the near future,” James sent this response:
“Beginning in Fiscal Year 2022 that began on July 1, 2021, Woodcrest placed $25,000 in their budget to use as an incentive to pay their volunteer firefighters to be at the station during the times that it is difficult to have coverage. Of course, this is all dependent on the volunteers’ availability. These times are daytime on the week days and on weekends. These are the times that the volunteers have commitments to their full-time employment and weekend family obligations.
Chief Luke Young made a proposal at the Oklahoma Volunteer Firefighters Caucus to increase the amount that can be paid to a volunteer firefighter. Presently, that amount is $3,614.40 per year. Chief Young proposed that they seek legislation to double that cap. This was the presented to the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association during the June Convention. That proposal was passed. They will now attempt to have legislation passed during the next legislative session. Hopefully, these changes will allow the department to offer greater financial incentives to the volunteers. In turn, possibly alleviating the difficult times to have coverage in the days and on weekends.
Woodcrest now has coverage on all nights. Each volunteer commits to one night at the station per week. Depending on their schedules, there may be 1-3 firefighters at the station from 9:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. except Saturday nights.
The new expanded station was built for the purpose of Woodcrest eventually expanding their services, including having firefighters staying at the station. Until the new facility was built, this was not permitted by the State Fire Marshal and the Fair Standard Labor Act.
Again, keep in mind that Woodcrest is not a Municipal fire department as defined by Title 11. To compare their response times to Meeker Fire Department and Jones Fire Department is misleading. In being in a municipality, they enjoy the benefits of population density.”
“It’s time for something to be done, time for a change,” said Bush. “There has got to be a solution somewhere.”
Until that solution comes, residents believe it is only a matter of time before someone else loses a loved one.
Residents in the Woodcrest Fire jurisdiction are able to begin a petition process to turn the entire area into Title 19. That additional funding could potentially help staff full time firefighters.
A Facebook group called Residents For Improving Woodcrest Fire Dept. has been launched.
Residents said they plan on attending Woodcrest’s next board meeting Monday night at 6:30 p.m. to express concerns.
Experts said it’s important to touch base with your local fire department to ask questions about staffing, funding and what first responders may need from the community.
It’s also important to ask about your fire station’s ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating. The ratings calculate how well-equipped fire departments are to put out fires in the community. This rating has a direct effect on citizens homeowners’ insurance rates.