November 2007

Volunteer shortage worries fire departments

Fewer young people stepping up to provide emergency services

By Gail Binkly

LESLIE JOHNSON AND RYAN CARTER OF THE CORTEZ FIRE DEPARTMENTIn Elm City, North Carolina, in January 2007, first responders to a structure fire have to wait 10 minutes for extra help to arrive. While they wait, the house burns down.

In West Virginia, the state firemen’s association considers whether to offer a retirement plan to attract new volunteer firefighters.

In New York, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer proposes a $1,000 tax credit for active members of volunteer firefighting and emergency medical service (EMS) organizations.

Across the country, volunteer fire departments are facing a crisis: They can no longer attract and keep enough people to fulfill their mission.

And the problem is hitting Montezuma County as well.

“We’re at a crossroads,” said Cortez Fire Chief Kent Lindsay.

“Everybody is looking for volunteers. We have to beg, borrow and steal. When the city council has openings they have a tough time filling, it’s hard to find people that will really dedicate the amount of time required to be a volunteer firefighter.”

The Cortez Fire Department currently has 38 volunteers, five of them rookies, Lindsay says. “My magic number is 60,” he said. “I don’t know how to get 60.”

Cat in the tree

Montezuma County is divided into five tax-supported volunteer fire districts: Cortez, Dolores, Mancos, Lewis- Arriola and Pleasant View. (The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has its own, paid fire department.) Like their counterparts across the country, these volunteer fire departments provide a host of emergency services, racing to car wrecks, structure fires, brush fires, and medical emergencies – which make up by far the bulk of their calls.

“We go to the cat in the tree, the kid in the tree, fire alarms, carbon-monoxide alarms,” Lindsay said.

Responders beg for clear addresses

One problem with which rural fire departments perennially have to contend is that of rural addresses – more specifically, the lack of them. Many homes don’t have addresses clearly posted.

“It can be a real problem, especially on an EMS [medical] call,” said Dolores Fire Chief Don Setser.

He said all the departments sell green-and-white reflective signs. “We would like to see more people with those,” he said.

At any rate, make sure your address is clearly visible from your road. It could mean saving someone’s life in an emergency.

They respond to medical calls where the situation is life-threatening, he said, such as in the case of heart attacks, seizures, severe trauma, and births. Southwest Memorial Hospital has an ambulance service that also responds to emergencies, “but they’re running two guys on an ambulance and it takes more than two guys to deliver a baby,” Lindsay said.

About 10 percent of the calls turn out to be false alarms or are canceled, he said.

In 2006, the Cortez Fire Department responded to about 700 calls. As of early October this year, they had had about 460, Lindsay said, which represents a slower pace. “We didn’t have the wildland brush-fire season we’ve had in the past,” he explained.

Still, over time, the number of calls is increasing just as the population of the city and the county is increasing. Yet the number of volunteers typically remains the same or drops.

According to one report, emergency calls are up nationwide but the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped by 10 percent.

That could mean, in a situation where several calls occurred at once, one might not be answered.

“Fortunately we’ve been able to cover everything so far,” Lindsay said. “No call has gone unanswered yet but we know that’s coming.”

Generally, though, the volunteer shortage is more likely to mean delays in response – delays that can spell the difference between a home being saved or destroyed or, even worse, between someone living or dying.

“When units regularly fail to get out of the fire station in a timely manner because of inadequate staffing resources, the community is endangered,” states a November 2005 report by the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. The report, known as the Red Ribbon Report, urges departments to start moving from being allvolunteer to having some paid staff.

Lindsay said that early this fall there was a structure fire south of Cortez that strained the resources of his department. “It was one of those hot, humid days,” he said. “I think we ended up with 12 [personnel] on scene. Usually it would take 15 to 18 to work a structure fire. We had guys just getting worn out. Finally Lewis-Arriola sent us in four guys, but they’re stretched as far as we are.”

Dolores Fire Chief Don Setser recalled a big fire in Hartman Draw a couple of years ago. “We fought it and fought it and then one broke out on the edge of Lost Canyon,” he said. “There were plenty of people [on scene] but they were so worn out from fighting that other fire. We took care of it, but that was a long few weeks.”

Never convenient

According to the Red Ribbon Report, there are 26,354 fire departments in the country, and about two-thirds of them are staffed by volunteers. Yet the number of volunteer firefighters – about 800,000 – is down 10 percent from two decades ago.

At the same time, these firefighters are expected to provide more complex and sophisticated services than ever before. Longtime volunteers, the report notes, “recall a time when training was much less demanding and time-consuming and the local fire department had fewer responsibilities. Fires and accidents were pretty much the game.”

Today, however, “the fire department is not just a group of people trained to suppress fire and render first aid. It has become the premiere provider of choice for different levels of emergency medical services and in many cases transportation, as well as the provider of . . . hazardous materials response, high-rise and belowgrade rescue, inspections, prevention and education, and community emergency planning. . .”

To some extent, citizens realize the importance of their fire departments. Locally, they have supported mill-levy increases or measures to allow the departments to avoid TABOR tax limitations.

“We have a good community that supports us,” Lindsay said. “We have good equipment though it’s almost a full-time job to keep the equipment up and running.”

The Cortez, Lewis-Arriola, and Mancos fire districts have de-Bruced, meaning they get to keep their mill levies at the same level even if their total revenues go up.

Dolores has yet to do so, Setser said. “We keep getting asked to do more and more with a little less money each year,” Setser said.

However, the Dolores district managed to get a mill-levy increase passed a few years ago. So did the Lewis- Arriola Fire District, according to its chief, George Deavers.

The smaller districts generally have to get by with used trucks and other equipment, but they manage.

“The most difficult part is the people, not the money,” said Mancos Fire Chief Tony Aspromonte. “Any kind of budget restraints you can deal with – you budget around them – but recruiting and retaining quality volunteers is becoming more difficult.

“A lot of people today want to volunteer but they want to do it when it’s convenient for them and in this business it’s almost never convenient.”

‘Like a crapshoot’

The Mancos Fire Department has 22 volunteers, but there is room for 30 on the roster, according to Aspromonte. For his district, the real problem is not so much an overall shortage of people, but a shortage during the days.

“I only have about four of my volunteers that actually work here in Mancos within the district,” Aspromonte said. “I drive to Farmington every day – I’m gone from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“Typically, Monday to Friday, 8 to 5, it’s like a crapshoot [finding people to respond to calls]. You roll the dice and see what happens.”

The Mancos Fire Department runs a full ambulance service, the only other licensed ambulance service (besides the hospital’s) in the county, Aspromonte said. The department has three ambulances and does patient transports.

But during days, that service may not be available.

“Seventy-five to 80 percent of our calls are medical-related, so that’s where we usually get in a bind,” Aspromonte said. “In the middle of a day when I don’t have a medic available, we may have to have Southwest come over with an ambulance and rendezvous with us.”

Daytime shortages are a problem in Cortez as well. “A lot of our guys are working or going to school,” Lindsay said. “It’s really tough for our guys to leave their jobs now. And at least four of them are working out of town.

“I know I can’t run out on my wife and leave her with a houseful of customers, either.” Lindsay owns El Grande café on Main Street. The situation has grown so worrisome that the Cortez Fire District Board is considering hiring a paid chief and possibly some additional paid personal to cover during the days.

There is “barely” enough money to pay for such changes, Lindsay said. “We have a pretty good operating budget,” Lindsay said, “but to shift from what we’re doing would not be cheap.” Wages would have to be competitive if Cortez doesn’t want to become a “training ground” for fire departments in other areas such as Farmington and Durango, he said, with paid staff leaving for better jobs as soon as they got experience in Cortez.

The district is researching the matter and will decide whether to proceed with the plan for some paid personnel.

Growing older

Setser said he shares Lindsay’s and Aspromonte’s concerns. The Dolores Fire Department has been fairly stable at about 30 volunteers for the past six to eight years, he said, but the number of emergency calls is steadily rising and is now about 300 a year.

Setser worries about the upward age shift among volunteers as well.

“The trend across the country is the average age of firefighters is increasing,” Setser said. “I think it’s in the 50s now. The younger people don’t seem to be stepping up. We just don’t seem to know how to attract and retain them.”

Dolores has volunteers as young as 21 and as old as 73, Setser said, “and we are definitely over-represented in the older ages.”

A number of factors may be playing in to that trend. As noted previously, more people are commuting to jobs out of town than in years past, and employers may be less tolerant of employees leaving their jobs to respond to an emergency. Also, many families have parents who work more than one job and simply have no spare time for training.

And newer generations may feel less compulsion to help their community. With all the tempting recreational pursuits available today – from video games to mountain bikes – younger men and women may be pursuing a more self-indulgent lifestyle.

And many people may simply not have realized the need for volunteers.

“A lot of people are moving in here from places that are bigger and that have paid fire departments, and they don’t seem to understand that we are all volunteer,” Setser said.

Lindsay said a number of years ago, the fire districts considered combining forces into one countywide district and made some phone calls to citizens to get their reaction. “About 30 percent of the people we talked to thought we were paid,” Lindsay recalled.

‘Daunting challenges’

Being a volunteer firefighter or EMS provider is not a responsibility to be taken lightly.

The Cortez Fire Department requires its rookies to attend a training meeting every week, Lindsay said. Regulars meet once a month and have a work detail once a month, plus a monthly training.

“And there are always specialty schools – firefighter classes, EMT classes – it’s quite an involvement,” he said. Then there is responding to the actual calls.

“We are on call 24/7 and 365 days a year,” Setser said. “As long as you’re in the district, you’re basically on call and expected to respond [to an emergency].”

Some people find the demand too much, but others remain for years. “We’ve had a number of guys stay on 20, 25 years,” said Lindsay, who has been with the department 17 years himself. “Right now we have a lot who have less than five years with the department and some over 15, but there is a big gap there. Those are the guys that are hard to replace.”

The districts vary as to how many female volunteers they have. “I have some very good women firefighters,” Lindsay said, including Claudia Apkin, a former fire chief at Pleasant View. However, he has just a handful. “I hope they don’t think it’s some kind of clique,” he said. “Nationwide there are a lot of women firefighters.”

He noted that in rural departments, wives traditionally provide invaluable support for firefighters, bringing water and food and setting up triage during big blazes.

Deavers said Lewis-Arriola has four women among its 30 volunteers. At Mancos, there is just one woman, Aspromonte said – his daughter.

But about half of the Dolores Fire District’s volunteers are female, Setser said. “Most are EMTs, but several of our women are some of the best fullcombat firefighters around,” he said. “They put on their packs and go to the fire. They’re as good a firefighters as men are.”

Volunteers over 50 are not uncommon for any of the districts. “I have seven people over 50,” Lindsay said. “They’ll know when it’s time to quit.” The department requires annual physi- cals for people over 45.

The future of volunteer fire departments remains very much an unanswered question.

Small rural fire districts such as Lewis-Arriola, with a smaller population to serve, may be able to function well for some time to come. Deavers said he has about 30 volunteers – 35 would be ideal – and not much trouble retaining them. “Seems like if they make it through the first year we don’t have a problem holding on to them,” Deavers said.

But for other departments, there will be a continual scramble to provide services communities have come to expect.

“Many areas of the country that traditionally have relied on citizen volunteers to provide fire protection and emergency medical services are finding fewer people available or willing to carry on the honorable tradition,” the Red Ribbon Report states.

“How are communities’ needs to be met? Finding the answer to that question is one of the most daunting challenges facing local governments and fire service leaders all across the country.”