Bob Kepke is the Chief of Ellsworth Fire & Rescue in Ellsworth, Kansas.
“Our official name is Ellsworth Volunteer Fire Department, but the majority of the work we do are rescues, so we go by Ellsworth Fire & Rescue, too,” he told me.
Ellsworth gained a reputation as “the wickedest cattle town in Kansas” shortly after its founding in 1864. The days of cowboys having gunfights in the streets are over, and today Ellsworth is a charming community with a little over 3,000 people.
“Life is good here,” Kepka told me, “and I have the incredible privilege of working with 43 guys willing to do anything to keep the people in our community safe.”
The Volunteers are the Fire Department
As we moved from talking about the town to talking about the Fire Department, Kepka said in a serious tone, “There isn’t another fire department in Ellsworth. We are the fire department.”
Imagining how far 43 volunteers could go protecting a town of more than 3,000, I asked him how much equipment they have.
Kepka laughed a bit. “People have asked me before, ‘Why do you all have so many vehicles?’ and I tell them, ‘We will not lose to a fire,’” and then he ran down a list of all their equipment. Some, like a bulldozer, are surplus military vehicles.
The bulldozer is especially useful during fires. “Wildfires spread fast,” Kepka told me, “and that ‘dozer can break the fire line or, in some cases, put it out entirely.” He paused before adding, “I told you, we will not lose to a fire.”
The Chief told me that in 1985 the department responded to 26 calls for grass fires. “Last year,” he said, “we had 156 fires, and thanks to climate change we’ll go over 200 this year.”
Chief Kepka was frank as he told me about the rescues they do. With Interstate 70 a few miles up the road and several state highways in the area, Ellsworth Fire & Rescue gets the call when there is an accident, and accidents are on the rise.
“I want to tell you something,” Kepka said. “I’ve been the Chief since 1994. We used to have one set of hydraulic tools to extricate people from destroyed vehicles when they’ve been in an accident. Now, we have eight.”
He shared some of what he has seen over the years. “I’m sure this won’t surprise you, but people are less careful than ever on the highways. They drive at crazy speeds like they are oblivious to the world, and then you have the people who text while driving.” He paused again. “It ends badly when people like that get into a wreck. I’m thankful when people survive and we’re able to get them out.”
The Chief also said he wanted to thank Pattern Energy for their donation from Post Rock Wind, as the funds helped purchase more of the rescue equipment they need.
Day jobs, retirement, scholarships and the next generation
Like every volunteer firefighter, Chief Kepka has a day job. “I do facilities maintenance for three schools in our district, and I work with a great group of folks but I’m retiring in three years!” he laughed.
“When I retire, most of the Department’s leadership will be retiring around the same time so we are starting to work with the younger guys to get some of them ready to step up and lead the Department.”
“We are really excited, because we raised money to offer scholarships to young people interested in learning fire science,” Kepka said. “Right now we have a young man, 18 years old, who went to Hutch Community College to learn firefighting, and we have a 16 year old young lady who has started taking firefighting classes. Both of them are motivated, want to be firefighters, and we are excited for them.”
Bob and his wife, Heather, have a blended family of three grown kids and two grandchildren.
Heather works as a registered nurse in a cardiac rehab clinic, and they also have three dogs.
When I asked Kepka what they like to do together, Kepka was happy to share. “We love where we live,” he said, “and we enjoy spending time in town. I like to fish, and both Heather and I like to go antiquing,” he said. They have different interests, but Kepka’s eye for antiques centers on militaria.
Kepka, ever the civic booster, ended our call with an invitation. “The future is bright here in Ellsworth. You should come visit us, you just might want to move here!”