NORWOOD, Mo. (AP) - Mark Warnick fought fires for 14 years, but
then he found something even better.
Warnick started Helping Our Own, an organization that collects
firefighting equipment and distributes it to low-budget departments
around the country.
"I felt this was more important than firefighting," Warnick
said. "I could save more firefighters' lives and civilians' lives,
as well as property, than I ever could as a firefighter."
In 31 years, Warnick said Helping Our Own has helped more than
520 fire departments with $26 million worth of equipment. The
organization made a drop Saturday in Cape Girardeau.
Mary Kay Carr, 60, was skeptical after finding Helping Our Own
on the Internet. Carr rented a 17-foot truck and drove it with her
daughter, Michelle, from Norwood to Cape Girardeau.
"I told my daughter, `We'll go out, just the two of us,' and if
it turned out there was nothing, nobody would know."
In Cape Girardeau, they found a tractor-trailer full of
firefighting gear, which would be distributed to 17 Missouri fire
departments.
"I was floored," Carr said. "It was the prettiest sight I had
seen in a long time."
Carr and her daughter loaded up the truck and headed back to the
Norwood Community Volunteer Fire Department, where both are
volunteers.
"My heavens," Carr said. "We got turnout gear that's probably
enough for 20 - jackets, pants, gloves, helmets and boots. We got
miles of hose. There was solid piping we can take water out of a
pond or a swimming pool with, and we got radios."
Several firefighters met Carr at the fire department Sunday to
unload the truck.
"We outfitted them and had a regular fashion show," Carr said.
Glenn Adler, Norwood's assistant fire chief, was among the
surprised. The department is funded entirely by yearly memberships
from area residents. Adler said it never would have been able to
afford the equipment, especially the much-needed turnout suits.
"A brand-new set costs anywhere from $700 on up, and helmets
are around $100 apiece," Adler said. "We've taken on a new four
or five firefighters, and we didn't have clothing to give them.
Without equipment, they basically just pull hose and help out
around the truck."
Carr said she got involved with the fire department as a way to
give back to the firefighters and emergency responders that helped
her through a fire at her home, a car accident and her husband's
death.
"I was amazed at how much these volunteers accomplished with
little or no equipment...," Carr said. "There were several guys
that didn't have simple gear, so they answered fires in their
street clothes."
That's when she found Helping Our Own, which Warnick founded in
Ozark County. Warnick, a former Brixey-Rockbridge volunteer
firefighter, collected $750,000 worth of donated equipment for his
department. Now, Warnick operates out of Michigan Center, Mich.
"Our ability is limited only by the funding we get," he said,
adding that delivery of equipment was the organization's biggest
expense. "Right now, we're at more than 5,000 fire departments in
the United States that need our help. For every dollar we get, we
can move $20-$25 worth of equipment."
One of the organization's main initiatives is to distribute
self-contained breathing apparatuses - or SCBAs - to firefighters.
Helping Our Own brought 175 SCBAs to Missouri over the weekend,
giving at least four to each department.
"It comes with a warranty," Warnick said. "They're completely
tested and repaired."
Carr said her next project is to find a new pumper truck for the
department.
"I've just dedicated myself to this, and heaven knows the
department needs the help," Carr said. "Sometimes, they don't
even get a `thank you."'

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)