At age 25, Mike Baxter, who worked in construction, volunteered with De Soto Fire & Rescue along with his father and brother. Once he started volunteering, he was drawn to the bond that he had with them and the community.
“There is something about a group of people who drop everything to go help someone in need, and they do it for little to no compensation,” Baxter said.
A few years later, he volunteered with the Eudora Township Fire Department and the Eudora City Fire Department. That volunteer work led him to a longtime career as a firefighter and paramedic.
“I really fell in love with fire and EMS (Emergency Medical Services) - assisting and helping patients in times of need,” Baxter said. “I know it sounds cliché, but I enjoy serving the citizens and being able to help and have an impact in the community.”
On Jan. 1, 2021, Consolidated Fire District No. 1 became an official agency serving the unincorporated areas of Douglas County, and Baxter was named the fire chief. Consolidated Fire District No. 1 was a unification of five rural fire departments (Townships of Wakarusa, Clinton, Kanwaka, Eudora and Lecompton Fire District 1) and one EMS first response agency (Clarion Springs EMS). Baxter was fire chief for two of them: Eudora and Wakarusa. “There were five agencies doing five different things and pulling in different directions. It just made sense to bring it together,” he said.
Baxter said the consolidation has allowed for allocating more resources at scenes and also decreased response times, which has improved the level of service for residents. “This first year has really exceeded my expectations, and I credit all of the staff and volunteers,” he said.
As fire chief, Baxter oversees five employees, about 85 volunteers and an approximately $1.1 million budget. He said his job is to ensure the people who live or travel within Douglas County have safe, efficient and reliable fire protection and services. He also is responsible for the safety of his employees. “Safety is our top priority,” he said. “We never know when a call is going to come in or what type of call it is. Everything has to be ready at all times.”
He said they’ve responded to about 1,000 calls during the past year. Those calls range from fire alarms, house fires and grass fires to vehicle accidents and sick individuals. They’ve even rescued a couple of cats in trees. Baxter said most fire departments receive about 80% medical calls and 20% fire calls, but Consolidated Fire District No. 1 is about 50% for both. That’s because there are no nursing homes, senior centers or health care clinics in the unincorporated areas of the county. However, there are lots of highway miles, so they do respond to a lot of vehicle accidents.
Baxter said his biggest challenge is recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. While there are 85 volunteers on a roster, about 50% will show up for scheduled trainings. Depending on the time and day, he has about 20 individuals who will be available when needed. It takes about five months for a volunteer to receive the certifications that are required and then they spend another six months learning the system and how to be effective and safe around fires. They receive $15 per call. “Many will come in and be excited, but then later will say there’s too much time and commitment involved,” Baxter said.
When Baxter meets with a potential volunteer, he is up front about the commitment. He encourages individuals to bring their significant others to the fire station to meet with him and to even call his wife if they have questions. “We are asking them to leave the dinner table. We are asking them to get up in the middle of the night. We are asking them to spend hours upon hours from family,” he said. “It is not easy.” Nationally, 76% of firefighters are volunteers.
During the past year, Consolidated Fire District No. 1 has used 2,920 volunteer hours. Baxter attends every high incident call such as a structure fire and major vehicle accident. He also continues to volunteer. For example, he responded to three calls on a recent Sunday. “There’s just not enough volunteers to cover every single day.”
Volunteers were essential in responding to and recovering from an EF-4 tornado that swept across rural areas of Douglas County on May 28, 2019. Baxter, who served as incident commander, said they rotated volunteers nonstop for three weeks. The tornado destroyed 13 homes and caused damage to 73 homes and two businesses. “The tornado still stands as that one event that was defining, yet life-changing for me,” he said. “It was chaotic and it was long-term.”
Baxter was attending a Wakarusa Township Board meeting at the fire station, 300 W. 31st Street, when the first call came in about a tour bus accident that happened south of Lawrence. He didn’t realize a tornado was heading his way while he was responding, especially because it was rain-wrapped. He ended up pulling over to the side of the road on the K-10 bypass because his truck started shifting and moving, and the calls for response were rapidly increasing. “We were like ‘We are way in over our heads and it’s time to get back to the station, regroup and formulate the plan of how we are going to manage this large-scale event.’”
Jillian Rodrigue, deputy director of Douglas County Emergency Management, said Baxter brings a pragmatic and proactive approach to ongoing and potential emergencies, pre-planned events and disasters. Baxter serves as chair of the Douglas County Emergency Management Board. “He never stops working to improve the processes or plans he’s involved in,” she said. “I truly appreciate Mike’s partnership with Emergency Management and sense of humor, especially during high-stress events, like the tornado.”
Baxter said another memorable event was responding to the wildfires in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, in September. Consolidated Fire District No. 1 is part of the Kansas Forestry Service, and Baxter serves as a task force leader. When he receives a call from the state, he works on recruiting and preparing firefighters for deployment as well as getting the equipment ready. They assist other locations only if there is not a fire danger locally. They’ve helped with fires in Medicine Lodge and Hutchinson, but had never gone out of state until the call came to help with the approximately 7,000-acre wildfire in Nebraska. Nine people went from the department, including Baxter. “We gained a lot of knowledge and experience because it was a different system and terrain.”
Baxter works countless hours and is grateful that his family is understanding about it. He describes his wife, Tiffany, as a saint. “She knows the good and the bad and the ins and outs,” he said, of his career. They’ve been married 30 years and have four sons, ages 27, 23, 20 and 9.
They have been foster parents for 10 years and adopted one of their foster children. They also serve as education advocates for the state. As advocates, they are assigned youth who are typically in the foster care system and their responsibility is to make sure the youth are receiving adequate support and services to meet their developmental needs. He’s currently advocating on behalf of one youth in Douglas County.
He also is a strong advocate for new firefighters. “I’m not the smartest, brightest one out there, but I do have some background and enjoy being able to pass along that education and knowledge to them.”
That background includes serving four years in the Marine Corps as a military police officer. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who served in the Marine Corps during Vietnam.
“Growing up around him and his Marine Corps values and listening to some of the stories and the camaraderie that he experienced had an impact on me,” Baxter said. “I was trying to find my way out into the world, and I knew it was something that I wanted to do.”
Baxter attended boot camp and combat training in San Diego and military police training in San Antonio. He was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, which is home to the squadron that flies the President of the United States. While there, he performed the duties of a law enforcement officer on the base, which included patrol, escort and gate duties as well as responding to calls. He also was trained to be an emergency medical technician.
In 1995, Baxter moved to Eudora with his family. He planned to continue a career in law enforcement, but decided it wasn’t a good fit for him and went back to working in the construction business and began volunteering for the local fire departments.
Six years later, he left the construction business and began working full-time for the ambulance service in Leavenworth County and then transitioned into the fire and medical side, obtaining his paramedic licensure in 2005.
He then worked for Jefferson County Ambulance Service from 2007 to 2015. During this time, Baxter received additional education and training, which included: attending Medicolegal Death Investigator School and earning his certification as a coroner scene investigator in St. Louis, attending Tactical Combat Casualty Care in Houston, and receiving training at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson. He served as a tactical medic during high-risk events for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. “Unlike medics on an ambulance who stage outside or away from the scene, we went in with law enforcement and provided immediate aid if something happened,” Baxter said.
In 2013, Jefferson County combined the Emergency Manager and Assistance Ambulance Director positions and appointed the new position of Emergency Management Director to Baxter. He served in that role until he was hired as the Wakarusa Township Fire Department chief in 2015. “I will always be grateful for the opportunities that Jefferson County gave me. The knowledge and life skills I learned while I was there will be something I will be able to forever use.”
Interim Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Chief Tom Fagan described Baxter as a servant leader who works tirelessly to ensure the county receives quality fire emergency services. “He always strives to assist wherever he can. We’ve worked together on several innovative changes to improve the county’s service delivery. I can count on Mike as a strong partner to continue improving services county-wide.”