First tribal firefighting network to stimulate Pine Ridge economy

Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 1:01 PM CDT
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PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, S.D. (KOTA) - The blueprints of a tribe-affiliated fire service is set to make one of the nation’s poorest counties a little more affordable.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) and the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SDSMT) are teaming up to develop the Oglala Lakota Structural Fire Department, the first tribal agency intended to protect homes and buildings across Pine Ridge.

SDSMT and Banner Associates, Inc., a South Dakota-based engineering firm, drafted blueprints for a roughly 5,500 square foot fire hall, a relatively average-sized station with enough room for five fire trucks and miscellaneous vehicles.

Progress on the project is divided into a three-phase process: hiring an administrative staff, constructing the station and finalization. Development is currently in the second phase and construction is slated to be finished by the end of 2021.

Wendell Yellow Bull, fire administrator for the work-in-progress station, says this basic piece of infrastructure is something that has never been fully realized for the tribe.

“There has never ... been a structural fire department on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Yellow Bull says. “This is [the] first one that will be a tribal function.”

This project has been in the works since the early 2010s, when the Oglala Sioux Tribe Ambulance Service proposed the idea of creating a related fire service for the region.

However, a decade-long moratorium on federal “earmarks” - congressionally directed spending that benefits a specific entity or district - pushed the ambulance service to instead direct funds to a new training center.

Tribe developers kept the idea on the back-burner until the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians awarded a $1 million grant to the OST in 2017.

The Need

This map shows the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) emergency response reach across the Pine...
This map shows the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) emergency response reach across the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The green color indicate where the BIA can provide fire service, while the red crosses mark the location of a BIA fire station. While the BIA protects a large swath of reservation land, their fire departments are prohibited from fighting structure fires per a lack of structural fire training.(South Dakota School of Mines & Technology)

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the scarcity of structural fire departments is a factor in the area’s economic woes.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) provides the majority of fire protection to the region. However, their firefighters specifically handle wildfires, and they lack the training to fight structure fires.

Instead, there’s a cruel irony on the reservation: volunteer fire departments, the only ones equipped for fighting structure fires, are often too far to provide an immediate response - some response times range from 30 minutes to an hour.

Yellow Bull knows getting fire trucks to the scene is a race against the clock: “once engulfed, it takes approximately seven minutes for it completely to be destroyed.”

Once the Pine Ridge-based fire hall is built, the fire administrator says response times will be slashed. SDSMT specifically designed the building with the intention of providing a fifteen-minute response time around the town of Pine Ridge.

One major hurdle remains: water. Will Smith, a SDSMT project manager for the proposed station who now works for Banner Assoc., says there’s not enough lakes and reservoirs to draw from, and their communities - dotting 3,469 square miles of rural land - often don’t have infrastructure for trucks to tap into the local water supply in the first place.

“The water pressure across the reservation likely isn’t high enough to be able to efficiently fill these trucks,” Smith says. “You can’t really rely on having a water source to hook up to at the site that of which you’re trying to extinguish a fire.”

His engineering colleagues have brainstormed a couple of solutions, including the addition of an on-site tank that can be filled prior to an emergency response.

Extinguishing Economic Woes

The big picture of what a fire department provides for a rural community is something many more-urbanized towns take for granted: economic security.

According to Dr. Marc Robinson, a project manager with SDSMT, premiums for fire insurance are higher for homeowners on Pine Ridge because of a lacking fire service infrastructure.

Higher premiums also stifle any attempts to provide for the local economy: “for them to try to attract businesses and companies to come on the reservation and set up ... they can’t get them because they can’t afford the fire insurance because there’s no structural firefighting capabilities,” Robinson says.

By creating a fire service agency, homes will generally become more affordable and businesses feel encouraged to set up shop on Pine Ridge.

One fire department is a small step, but OST and their engineering partners aim to provide corner-to-corner coverage of Indian country with four planned substations in Kyle, Oglala, Porcupine and Wanblee in the works.

Smith says the cooperation between the tribe and off-reservation engineers to make life easier for the people of Pine Ridge instills a sense of pride.

“A passionate group on the reservation ... saw the need and fought tooth-and-nail and as hard as they possibly could to get this thing up and started. It’s just been a great experience and a blessing to be a part of it - to help out with what we can do,” the young engineer finished.

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