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Mines Students Assist Oglala Sioux Tribe in Designing First Structural Fire Station On Pine Ridge

A sketch of the proposed fire department.

The Oglala Lakota Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation has never had a dedicated structural fire department to serve its residents. The nearest response time for house fires could be up to an hour, leaving victims to watch their house and possessions burn to the ground. All that is about to change for the tribe as they developed unique partnerships to get this structural fire department off the ground.

This story comes from a recent interview on SDPB's weekday radio program, "In the Moment." Listen to the full interview below. 


Hello Jackie. So this has been something that the tribe has been working on for years. I had a great talk with Wesley Big Crow, the fire chief for the Oglala Lakota Structural Fire Department. He said there are quite a few misconceptions when it comes to structural fires on the reservation. 

Wesley: “Well you talk about fire and everybody always says, "Well, the BIA takes care of that." Well, the BIA doesn't take care of it. The BIA takes care of wild land fire only, and not having a structural fire department on this reservation for the entirety of my life or even anybody else's life. There's never been one here. We've always had to look for outside resources, which is all the volunteer fire departments around our reservation.”


So Richard, the biggest disadvantage to fighting house fires is the response time due the sheer ruralness of the reservation. Tell me about that.


Like Wesley said Jackie, they have to rely on volunteer fire departments from places like Batesland or Martin. If there is a fire in Oglala, it could take up to an hour or more for those first responders to get there. After setting up the groundwork for some initial funding, a partnership was struck up with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. I spoke with a former Mines’ student William Smith, who graduated recently and was a part of the team that helped with the project.

William Smith: It's a really kind of cool and rewarding feeling, it's something I can't really even maybe put into words. As a student you're very limited in your knowledge and experience in engineering. I mean, you have the basic principles that you're learning through school, but the application part of it is still very new. The opportunity to have that experience not only just part of a standard project, but something that's kind of moving in a way and establishing something that's really going to make a positive impact in a community that's in much need of it. 

The school was able to secure a USDA Rural Development Grant that seeks to improve infrastructure in rural communities. They also held townhall meetings with each district of the tribe and according to Big Crow, they people knew exactly what they wanted.

Big Crow: “What would you guys like to see? And a lot of the input was we'd just like to see some kind of fire suppression here. We would like to have our own fire trucks, our own district, so response time because calling people and then an hour later our trailer's burned completely down, our houses burned completely down and we're losing everything. So all they would like is just the fire department. And so we came up with the design and, it's two bays. We got four of them, four extensions to our big administration building, and our headquarters is going to be in Pine Ridge. It's about a 10,000 square foot building, it's got office space in there for administration. And it's got five bays for our fire trucks. 


I understand that currently they are still in the architectural phase at the moment, but eventually when it’s all said and done it’s going to provide a form economic development to a place where jobs may be a little scarce.


I think right now is to get the building put and start as a volunteer fire department but Big Crow said the long term goal is to provide full time jobs to aspiring firefighters. 

Big Crow: “Sure all native American, young boys and girls and all... because I used to work at the Bureau of Indian affairs before I started here. These kids are all hands-on kids and this is a hands-on project. This was the way they learn with their hands and their eyes. And so having a fire department gives these kids an opportunity to have a career in something and they can take it off reservation. My thing is if we could get guys trained up here and the young kids come in and say, "Hey, I want a career in fire, and structural fire, and wild land fire." They can get it in my program. And then if they decide when they're a little older in their twenties or thirties and they want to go somewhere else and live somewhere else, they have that background to saying, "Hey, I can go fight fire somewhere else."

I think this is going to be a big deal for the Tribal Members of Pine Ridge Jackie. Because of housing shortage, a lot of these households are holding more than just a single nuclear family, some have multiple families living in a 3-bedroom house. A fire that burns down a house could be devasting for these families. Not only that, when it comes to fires prevention is always key. This fire department can do major outreach to it’s district to not only teach fire safety, but stress the importance of fire alarms and fire extinguishers and having an escape plan when there is a house fire.