Reflecting on 2023 with Bill Kelly

Dec. 27, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Video crew working on Nebraska Public Media documentary Working Fires
Producer Bill Kelly, videographer Tiffany Johansen, and audio engineer Ryan Messman at the Nebraska Forest Service fire training school.

This holiday season, Nebraska Public Media is reflecting on stories and topics our newsroom has covered over the past year. Our team is made up of ten reporters. Senior reporter and producer Bill Kelly joined Nebraska Public Media in 1990. He oversees the production of Nebraska Public Media's news documentaries. When is reporting, his focus is courts and the criminal justice system. This year, Kelly produced a documentary assessing the challenges faced by the state’s volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders. He sat down with Dale Johnson to reflect.

Volunteer fire department training near Madison, NE
Firefighters training during an exercise near Madison, Nebraska (Photo: Bill Kelly/Nebraska Public Media)

It’s good news sometimes when it’s an uneventful year. That’s certainly the case for Nebraska’s firefighters. After facing the second-worst wildfire season in the state’s history in 2022, this year was calm in a way emergency responders often find unnerving. Too quiet.

With firefighters taking a breather, it proved to be a good time for Nebraska Public Media News to assess the challenges faced by the state’s volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders.
The documentary I produced, “Working Fires: Volunteer Firefighters in Crisis,” took our crew across the state to hear about the difficulties communities are recruiting members and paying for services at a time when extreme weather poses a recurring threat.
It’s been getting a lot of attention on YouTube, where it’s drawn comments from people, especially firefighters, from all over the world. You can watch it here.
The documentary and the radio reporting on the project included collecting data and opinions directly from the state’s volunteer fire departments.

Among the highlights:

  • Responding departments ranked being “unable to recruit new members” as the biggest challenge facing their organization. Recruiting was described as “difficult” by 62% of the departments.
  • Asked about the impact current trends in recruiting and retaining members will impact their departments, 59% said it will decrease the quality of service provided.
  • Looking ahead to the next five years, 3 out of 4 volunteer fire departments anticipate extreme weather, including wildfires, will increase the number of emergency calls they must answer.

You can read the full survey here.

It’s a topic we’re going to continue to follow. There are a number of proposals being considered by state policymakers ranging from funding for communications equipment to re-examining the daunting requirements to become an Emergency Medical Technician.

Nebraska Public Media crew at training session for volunteer firefighters.
A Nebraska Public Media crew gathers footage for the 2023 documentary Working Fires. (Photo: Bill Kelly/Nebraska Public Media)