The concept of mutual aid and assistance that Kevin Edwards believes in and helped solidify into state law actually went a long way to saving his life after a car accident in December 2009.
Edwards and his co-worker Roger Kruger were involved in a three-vehicle accident on Interstate 80 on their way back home to Omaha after driving a friend to York, NE, for the Christmas holidays. Kruger was killed in the accident, and Edwards suffered a serious head injury. Both were Omaha firefighters at the time.
“I certainly owe my life to those who responded,” said Edwards. “They extricated me from the vehicle and got me to the hospital in Lincoln.” Saddened about Roger’s death, he said, he is alive today because of the responders’ actions. “I would have frozen to death otherwise.” Emergency responders from the York County Sheriff’s Office, the Nebraska State Patrol, and the communities of York, Waco, and Utica aided at the scene.
The idea of fire departments and fire districts joining together to better provide mutual aid and assistance is at the heart of the Mutual Finance Assistance Fund established by the Nebraska Legislature in 1998. The program provides aid to rural or suburban Fire Protection Districts (FPDs) and Mutual Finance Organizations (MFOs) “for the purpose of financing operational and equipment needs for fire protection, emergency response, or training.”
This fiscal year, $3.35 million will be distributed to 37 FPDs and MFOs, according to the Treasury Management Division of the State Treasurer’s Office. The amount is down $300,000 from the $3.65 million distributed last fiscal year.
The Mutual Finance Assistance Fund is a wonderful program that rewards rural fire districts for “their cooperative spirits” and innovative thinking, says Edwards, both an Omaha firefighter and fire chief of the Millard Suburban Fire District, which qualifies for the state aid as a stand-alone district.
State aid to FPDs and MFOs has actually helped some rural fire districts lower their tax levies, resulting in lower taxes for residents in those communities, Edwards said. And the MFOs themselves have been excellent examples of what small, “cash-strapped” government entities can do when they join forces and work together to provide necessary services for their communities. The Mutual Finance Assistance Fund allows fire districts to fulfill their community obligations, while at the same time, in some cases, lower their tax levy rates, he said.
The Mutual Finance Assistance Fund also goes hand in hand with long-established mutual aid agreements within and across counties that assure that all departments involved will respond, with no questions asked, in extraordinary circumstances, such as major accidents, explosions, hazardous material spills, and weather-related emergencies.
While cooperation among agencies has been happening for years, Edwards said, the Mutual Finance Assistance Fund “is a great program that allows those districts to reap some rewards for being cooperative spirits and for thinking outside the box, allowing them to reap the reward of state financial aid, and that helps the taxpayer.”
Edwards, 50, started his career as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Ulysses, where his father, Burt, was volunteer fire chief for many years. The younger Edwards also worked as an EMT for the York County ambulance service and as a firefighter in Richardson, TX. He has been a firefighter, captain, and battalion chief in the Millard Suburban Fire District and, since 1998, has been in charge of the district’s budget. The district now contracts with the City of Omaha for fire and EMS services.
Edwards has been involved in the Mutual Finance Assistance Fund since the beginning, working with state senators in the 1990s to find ways to encourage local fire departments and fire districts to work together to eliminate duplication of efforts and resources. The result was the Mutual Finance Assistance Fund. Edwards is particularly proud of guiding Logan County officials through the process of qualifying for the aid in 2005, using documents found on the Nebraska State Treasurer’s Office website, in time to meet a July 1 deadline.
Logan County Clerk Pat Harvey said the state aid has been very helpful to the county, enabling the volunteer firefighters to purchase equipment they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. They have purchased new firefighter clothing, “bunker gear” including helmets, and recertification of air bottles. “We are very grateful for our young firefighters,” she said.