January 15th, 2019

county fire department trioSeward County Fire Chief Andrew Barkley, left, Deputy Fire Chief John Steckel and firefighter Braden Steckel are prepared to go out on a call when the need arises. L&T photo/Robert PierceROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times


For most people, a day at work typically involves eight hours or more of a routine job, but for some, the job is anything but routine.

Such is the case with first responders, helping with many different kinds of emergencies like accidents, fires, crime incidents, medical problems and even the occasional cat caught in a tree.

In earlier times, many children dreamed of going into any of the fields first responders entered from law enforcement to EMS to firefighting.

In the early part of his life, Andrew Barkley had dreams of two of those particular fields.

“When I was little, I wanted to be a cop, but then I saw the light,” he said. 

Now the fire chief for Seward County, Barkley would later enter the fire service in his home state of California, following what some would call a family tradition.

“I have family in the fire service,” he said. “I have a retired uncle, who worked for Fresno City Fire, which is a metropolitan area. He was a medic on a truck company there. I have cousins in my hometown that were on the fire department. Kind of following not so much in my immediate family, but following family tradition so to say.”

Barkley’s first job was in his hometown of Selma, Calif., which now has about 30,000 residents, but at the time he worked there, it was about the size of Liberal.

Barkley would continue working in the firefighting field for what was then an all volunteer fire department before becoming the first full-time firefighter in a community service district before coming to Southwest Kansas.

“As a battalion chief, I was their first paid guy and stepped up to the chief position there and then came here,” he said.

Barkley has now been with Seward County for about three years, and he said the group of local first responders here are some of the best he has ever seen.

“It’s different than normal citizens so to say,” he said. “We see tragedy on someone’s worst day. Usually, when we’re called, something’s wrong, and something’s not a good day for somebody. We all band together to fix that problem. The law enforcement is really great for us when the respond with us on fires and car accidents and EMS calls. We all work in tandem to get the problem resolved. Where we’re at as a fire department, we couldn’t do it alone. Even with the citizens and the farmers stepping up on these grass fires with tractors and discs, they’re coming out and helping us. We can’t catch them by themselves.”

Barkley recalled one such incident of cooperation amongst local first responder units recently.

“Earlier this summer, we had the Meade Lake fire going when our units responding found another fire just east of town here,” he said. “The city sent an engine out to help them. Their airport firefighter was also standing by to fill our plane we were using for the grass fire. They’re just a phone call away like we are for them, and when it comes to an emergency scene, we get things done very well.”

Barkley brings a lot of his mentality and experience from California to his current job in Seward County.

“I’m a West Coast kid, and the West Coast is very well developed and very well ran,” he said. “There’s a state wildfire plan and everything else. Here in Seward County, you’ll have to forgive me because I come from fast paced, and I’ve come back to a slow pace.”

Despite the slower pace, Barkley said local first responders do very well with their tasks, and he said state officials help in that success.

“The state is really picking up the bat with getting the wildfire stuff ready for the state, putting plans together and starting to move forward,” he said. “We’ve had a few years where a lot of the state’s burned, so they’re really picking up now and trying to get the plan together. Strike teams and task forces are being organized and sent to fires.”

Barkley said this means little, if any, resources are being depleted in Seward County, or in any other county for that matter.

“We’re pulling one truck from each county and putting them together with the chief, and they’re going to help other neighboring counties,” he said. “We’re really moving forward from where we were.”

Barkley called what local first responders have a partnership, but despite all of the success of his department or other units, one change has become particularly evident.

“I think the problem we see on the fire side is 20 years ago, you had a ton of volunteer firefighters,” he said. “Still to this day, the majority of fire departments across the U.S. are volunteer, but the numbers are dwindling. They have been for the last 20 years.”

For this reason, Barkley said he foresees a time when Seward County’s numbers will dwindle, and changes will need to be made.

“We’re going to have to put people in these stations to protect our residents,” he said. “When that will happen, I don’t know, but the things that we’re doing as a department is preparing ourselves to be able to handle a soft flex towards that. We understand that we recognize we’re not always going to have volunteer firefighters.”

Part of the reason volunteer numbers are dwindling is the lack of availability, Barkley said.

“During the day, volunteers have to work,” he said. “Our paid call personnel have to work at their jobs. They can’t necessarily get away if they’re even here working, if they’re not in another county working.”

During the daytime, Barkley said staffing is in place, something he believes has proven beneficial to his operation.

“I think that’s proved tremendous with getting trucks on the road quicker and getting to these fires while they’re not as big,” he said. “Our paid call personnel have been amazing. The last few big fires we’ve had, we’ve had almost unanimous turnout. Everybody’s showed up.”

Barkley said to handle emergencies, it takes an effort from all who are involved, whether it be law enforcement, firefighters, EMS or any other first responders. He also said success comes with change.

“We’re kind of a combination department, but we’ve got to realize too that we’re not always going to be able to do it the way we’ve always done it,” he said. “We have to adjust to change because everything around us has changed.”

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