Below, you’ll find three articles written for my Convergence Reporting class in Spring 2017.
Missouri Private Dam Owners Left Stranded Without Government Aid
Written by Camden Jones. Additional reporting by Jiwon Choi, Humera Lodhi and Emil Lippe.
It rained all day yesterday. And all night. And all this morning. And the water in the lake is pushing, straining against the earthen wall that formed the lake 50 years ago. The dam has a spillway to shed the excess water. But it’s not big enough to get rid of the water fast enough.
Physics – and 50 years of deferred maintenance – takes over. The dam crevasses, and water pours out, following the long-dead creek bed and pouring into the community below.
Missouri has lots of dams. And it has one big dam problem: No one is checking on them, thanks to a quirk of state law.
Missouri is one of only three states that doesn’t regulate any privately owned dams less than 35 feet tall, regardless of the amount of water they impound or their hazard level, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials’ 2011 Hydrologic Safety of Dams Survey. Most states regulate dams more than 25 feet tall with certain levels of water storage. Missouri depends on landowners to regulate their own dams that are less than 35 feet tall.
“Dam owners are not civil engineers,” said Erik Loehr, an MU engineering professor. “It’s a dam. It’s holding back the water. And water’s pretty. And we can put a boat on it. … They just don’t really even know what they’re supposed to be looking for.”
Missouri has 5,356 dams, 1,457 of which are considered “high hazard,” according to the ASDSO 2017 Dam Safety Performance Report. A “high-hazard” dam is one that has the greatest potential to cause loss of property and life in the event of a failure. Missouri has more high-hazard dams than any other state in the nation, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.
Mark Ogden, a technical specialist with ASDSO and a member of the ASCE Committee for America’s Infrastructure, says Missouri’s broad and unusual regulation standards can lead to highly damaging failures.
“That dam could be 34.9 feet high. … [but] could be storing thousands of acre-feet of water,” Ogden said. “If there are homes downstream of that and that dam fails, those homes are in jeopardy. The people who live in those homes are in jeopardy. But the state really has no recourse, no authority to oversee that to make sure that those are being maintained properly.”
The Glover Spring Lake dam in Callaway County was 33 feet tall when it failed to properly expel excess rainwater last August, causing flooding of the surrounding residences, damage to a bridge downstream and a partial collapse of the dam itself.
Ron Mirts, a Glover Spring Lake resident and member of the homeowners’ association that owns the dam, says the association had to pay thousands of dollars to repair the dam on top of paying for damages to their own homes.
“Our club spent $58,000 rebuilding the dam,” Mirts said. “Then the Department of Natural Resources … said the spillway is not wide enough, so we have to hire an engineer, and our low bid is another $18,000.”
Ogden says a single owner’s lack of the knowledge, money and time required to maintain a dam can affect a whole community.
“The lack of authority to inspect those dams less than 35 feet high could be detrimental to the dam owners,” Ogden said. “Their own judgment is that they don’t need to do anything, but that’s probably not in their best interest. … The biggest issue is the people who live downstream of those dams, and the state really isn’t looking out for their interests.”
Missouri’s many aging, unregulated, high-hazard dams are reflective of the environment that caused the formation of the ASDSO in 1983, following the death of 39 people in the 1977 failure of a 78 year-old dam in Georgia.
Missouri’s dams are similarly increasing in age, as many of them were built back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s — and some even before that — according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ 2007 Missouri Dam Report By County.
Ogden says new engineering standards can mean older dams are insufficient.
“The things that were assumed to be the most up to date and sufficient 50, 60 years ago are now known that that’s not really sufficient,” Ogden said. “Without having inspected it properly over the years, there is a very high likelihood that you’re going to run into issues.”
Of Missouri’s 1,457 high-hazard dams, only 465 are regulated, according to the Dam Safety Performance Report. Ogden says that, despite the state’s efforts to educate dam owners, the lack of regulation still makes it difficult to prevent disaster.
“In general I think that they have a pretty good program in terms of their resources,” Ogden said. “Close to 85 percent of their high-hazard potential dams have an emergency action plan, and I know that they’ve done a lot in recent years to increase those numbers … for those that they regulate. And that’s the big issue right there. … There are close to a thousand high hazard potential dams in the state that are going unregulated. … No one is inspecting them, … so that’s a very serious concern and something that the state really needs to address.”
Missouri 911 Centers Struggle to Afford Modern Technology
Written by Camden Jones. Additional reporting by Jiwon Choi and Heng Li.
The latest battle in the telecommunications revolution is being fought in Linn County’s 911 dispatch center. Call 911 from somewhere in the deeply rural county and it takes precious minutes – and sometimes hours – to locate where that call is coming from.
The problem isn’t about wires. It’s not about computers.
It’s about money.
Missouri is one of two states without a wireless surcharge funding program and one of 11 without statewide 911 coordination, according to the National Emergency Number Association and the National Association of State 911 Administrators. This means counties are on their own to make up for poor funding and are left struggling to keep up with technological changes.
Traditionally, telecommunications technology relied on information being sent through copper wires from one place to another.
In recent years, however, networks have been transitioning from these “copper” systems to IP networks. According to NASNA Director Evelyn Bailey, Emergency Services IP network technology works similarly to how the internet sends information, allowing for more efficient data transfer.
“IP is fast,” Bailey said. “Copper networks are like a horse and buggy by comparison to a rocket ship in terms of the speed that a 911 call gets through the network.”
These modern networks allow for the implementation of newer technologies like geographic information systems-based routing and location, Bailey said. And according to Paul Linée, principal analyst at the Emergency Communications Strategies consulting firm, the modern networks also allow for “next generation” 911 technologies such as the ability to receive video and images from a cell phone at the time of the call to give responders more information about the emergency.
Twelve states already have IP 911 networks, and three more are in the process of obtaining them, according to Bailey. Without a statewide wireless surcharge, Missouri isn’t on track to make the same upgrade.
Linn County, like many others in mid-Missouri, relies on a local sales tax for funding. 13 counties in mid-Missouri, though, depend on landline surcharges to keep their call centers afloat, according to the Missouri 911 Directors Association.
As landline usage decreases, these counties are struggling to maintain their call centers, and won’t likely be able to implement modern networks. In fact, Linn County transitioned from a landline surcharge to a local sales tax about three years ago because of this decrease, according to Linn County 911 dispatcher Bob Garr. But even with a funding alternative to landline surcharges, Linn has still only just now been able to implement so-called “Phase II” 911 service, a ‘90s-era technology that provides dispatchers with automatic GPS data on a wireless caller’s location.
Bailey says failing to upgrade to IP will leave even the small towns with Phase II tech falling behind other telecommunications systems.
“As the telephone companies in Missouri and in surrounding states start to decommission their copper networks … and replace them with IP,” Bailey said, “then these little places that are still using really severely antiquated technology at this point are going to … perhaps have even a less reliable service because everything else around them is IP except for 911. … It’s a horrible thought.”
Written by Camden Jones. Additional reporting by Lexi Churchill, Rachel Thomas and Meiying Wu.
Missouri’s volunteer departments are understaffed, underfunded and struggling to keep their communities safe.
About 75 percent of the state’s fire departments are volunteer-only, according to the National Fire Protection Association, an industry group. And if you talk to some of the firefighters who give up their time to save their neighbors’ homes or farms, you hear one thing over and over:
There are fewer of us than there used to be. And it’s getting to be a problem — a national problem.
Since 1986, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has been decreasing, according to a 2016 NFPA survey.
David Decker is president of the Lincoln Community Fire Protection District Board of Directors in Benton County. Local taxes only generate about $100,000 a year for his department.
“Everything is so expensive,” Decker said. “You’ve really got to make do with the things you have. … Keeping things going on a limited budget — that’s a delicate balancing act at times.”
Kevin Zumwalt, associate director of the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute, says $100,000 isn’t the lowest budget he’s seen for a small department. The nearby town of Clarence, for example, has an annual budget of just over $13,000.
“That’s not a lot of money,” Zumwalt said. “That’s barely putting fuel in the fire truck. That’s barely keeping the lights on in the fire station. … That’s barely having a concrete floor … for your trucks to park on.”
Volunteer departments have to come up with creative ways to pay for equipment and training. These can include fundraising activities and data reports to the Missouri Department of Conservation and the National Fire Incident System in order to be eligible for state and federal grants.
MU’s fire training institute helps provide training to Missouri fire departments. The institute recently received funding from the MFA Incorporated Charitable Foundation and equipment donations from Brock Grain Systems to support a grain engulfment rescue training program in Lincoln on Feb. 18.
But this kind of free access to training for volunteers does not necessarily enable all of them to attend.
Though the Missouri Division of Fire Safety provides registration and certification to fire departments throughout Missouri, there is no state or federal law that requires any training for volunteer firefighters.
Mike Holcer is Meadville’s fire chief and director of Missouri Association of Fire Chiefs Region B. He says it’s rare for small departments to have a majority of firefighters who have completed Firefighter I and II, Missouri’s basic firefighter training and certification programs. Holcer estimates the programs took about 10 months to complete when they were taught at the Meadville department, totalling around 240 hours.
Holcer works for the U.S. Department of Agricultural Natural Resource Conservation Service when he isn’t volunteering.
“If we have a call during the day and I’m around the office or in the area, I’m able to take off and go to the fire,” Holcer said. “Some of our guys are not. We all go to work just like anybody else.”
Without the worry of balancing other jobs with firefighting, career fire departments are able to respond from the station 24 hours a day.
Volunteer firefighters, on the other hand, have to be alert at all times.
“Whenever the pager goes off, you don’t go, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’” Scott said. “You just instantly put your clothes on, and you’re gone. … There’s no stopping. … It sounds crazy, but you get it in your blood, and you’ve just got to do it.”
Even ready and willing volunteers can only do so much to work around their schedules. Holcer says responding volunteer firefighters’ have to first get to the station from wherever they are and then take the trucks to the fire site.
“At night when people are home, our response times are better,” Holcer said. “During the daytime, … we normally don’t have a lot of guys around, so our response times are somewhat longer.”
The lack of a regular schedule creates an “always on” attitude in the volunteers.
“Once we’re off our shift, we all have our homes that we got back to,” said Jeffrey Heidenreich, a full-time firefighter for the Columbia Fire Department. “I would bet that the typical, average volunteer firefighter puts in 20 or more hours a month with their volunteer fire station. That’s a lot to ask someone when they have careers and school and families. … It’s probably easy to get burnt out.”