History was made this month by the Quapaw Nation Fire/EMS Department when it officially became the first tribal department to be accepted into the Oklahoma State Firefighters' Association that represents thousands of state and volunteer firefighters.
Formed in 1894, the OSFA is the longest standing national association in the state of Oklahoma, according to Administrative Director Sheri Nickel. The group serves about 11,000 firefighters and more than 600 fire departments. The Quapaw Nation officially became a member of the organization on Thursday.
"Firefighting is like a brotherhood, and this (membership) includes us officially in this brotherhood," said Jeff Reeves, tribal fire chief and public safety director.
Nickel, who's also Native American, said she had questioned why the association had never allowed tribal members in the past. The constitution was amended last year to include tribal entities, and Nickel said she hopes to have more tribes join in the future.
"We just opened up our membership to tribes, and it was voted on in our last convention in June of 2018," Nickel said. "We would like to have as many tribal memberships as we can. We're the voice of the Oklahoma firefighters, so we want to be an all inclusive organization.
"We had allowed the Iowa Tribe to come in as a limited member, but Quapaw is the first full member after the constitution change," she added. "With that, we hope it encourages everyone else to become full members."
As members, the Quapaw team will have access to a variety of assistance including in-line-of-duty death benefits, accidental death and dismemberment benefits, as well as voting rights at all OSFA conventions and meetings. The association does lobby for the benefits affiliated with the Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System, however, the tribe isn't eligible for the plan under current statutes.
"The pension plan has to be changed by legislation to allow fire departments to receive benefits through the pension system," said Reeves. "Ben Loring, our (state) representative in this area, is submitting a proposal this legislative session to try to get that through and get it changed."
Loring pre-filed a bill in the state House of Representatives to allow full-time firefighters employed with Native American tribes to be included in the Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System. The proposal is HB1426 and the first legislative session convenes on Feb. 4.
The Quapaw Nation Fire/EMS Department began operating in 2008 and serves under the Quapaw Nation's Department of Public Safety. The department has three station locations in Miami, Wyandotte and at Downstream Casino Resort. Responders with the tribe cover a majority of rural Ottawa County.
Crews have provided assistance to not only nearby communities, but also have responded to natural disasters across the nation such as Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Florence and wildfires in western Oklahoma.
"It's one of those things that kind of completes us," said Reeves."It comes down to the hard work that the men and women have put into this department over the last 11 years. It's a tribute to our guys because they work very hard to earn the recognition from OSFA and admittance into OSFA."
The Fire/EMS team consists of 33 full-time firefighters and paramedics/EMTs. There are also four administrative positions held by fire Chief Jeff Reeves; Leon Crow, assistant fire chief; Zack Turley, deputy director of EMS; and Tim Reeves, fire arson investigator.