Volunteer Firefighters Harder To Find, Keep Fewer Answer Siren Call Of Community, But Those Who Do Reel In Satisfaction
They have their regular lives - as teachers, mechanics and legal secretaries. They are parents, husbands and wives.
But they also have other lives - ones in which they pull people out of burning buildings, fight off flames that eat homes and save the injured and dying from wreck-mangled cars.
They are North Idaho’s volunteer firefighters, paid little or nothing to risk their lives. And now, Kootenai County - whose largely rural population depends on volunteers - is suffering a serious lack of them.
While the number of emergency calls swells like a fanned flame, the number of volunteer firefighters has flat-lined, and even shrunk, for many departments.
The Hayden Fire Protection District has 19 volunteers but needs 30. Kootenai County Fire Protection District has 22 - five fewer than last year with two new stations needing help in the near future.
The Coeur d’Alene Fire Department has eight volunteer firefighters to supplement its paid staff. It should have at least 18.
Thirty people signed up to become volunteers for the Post Falls Fire Protection District last year. Only six remained when training was done.
Fire departments across the county are in the midst of heavy campaigning to recruit those with the stamina, time and commitment for a job with few tangible benefits but an abundance of emotional rewards.
“We’ve never really been after people like we’re after them now,” said Ralph Kramer, the Hayden firefighter leading the recruiting drive for his department.
“The volunteers are the core of the fire department,” said Hayden fire inspector Dean Marcus. “Nothing will happen without them.”
Monty Aarestad, a 40-year-old carpenter, volunteered to be a firefighter after he watched the 1991 firestorm destroy a trailer park.
“I saw the devastation to the trailer homes; those things were melted down to about a foot tall,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I realized there just weren’t enough people to put that fire out.”
Aarestad has been with the Athol Fire Protection District ever since.
“You do it because you know in your own heart you’re doing something for the community,” said Marcus, a construction worker turned paid firefighter after three years volunteering. “It is the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life.”
Of the 13 fire departments in Kootenai County, only one is staffed primarily with paid firefighters, said Bill Schwartz, director of Kootenai County Disaster Services. Many pay only the chief or deputy chief while departments like Hayden, Post Falls and Kootenai County staff a small number of paid firefighters to supplement the volunteers.
The Coeur d’Alene department has 21 paid firefighters - the most of any department in the county. But that staffing number has remained the same for 20 years, forcing the department to depend on volunteers to help with the burgeoning call load.
Coeur d’Alene took 1,763 calls in 1995 - a 43 percent increase from 1990. In Athol last year, firefighters handled three times the emergencies in 1990. In Post Falls, calls jumped to 706 in 1995 from 541 in 1992.
By most standards, the volunteer departments run on emaciated budgets. Athol’s budget of $146,600 is less than the cost of a fire engine - one without any equipment.
“If you want good services when you live in a small town you have two choices: Provide lots of money or provide lots of time,” said Matt Slover, a probation officer who doubles as a Post Falls firefighter. “I don’t have a lot of money.”
The problem is, “I think a lot of people walk in and say they want to be a fireman but they don’t realize it’s going to be such a big donation of time,” Kramer said.
Volunteer firefighters respond to the same calls paid firefighters do - house fires, car fires, field fires, vehicle wrecks and rescues. Some departments pay a small amount of money for expenses - maybe $50 a month. Others don’t.
Before fighting fires, volunteers spend more than 100 hours in training. That’s every weekend for about four months. Then, in addition to working day jobs, they’re on call around the clock. Although they can choose what calls they go to, they know lives may depend on them.
“During the summer it’s like one call after another,” said Mary Curlee, who has been a Post Falls volunteer for nine months. This summer she went to 31 calls in one month.
“It’s not uncommon to miss a night’s sleep and then go to work,” said Slover, who did just that after a 2 a.m. call the day before.
Athol Fire Chief Marion Blackwell believes it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find these volunteers as the region grows. “People are not as community-oriented as they used to be,” he said. “There are no roots in the community.”
And people are busier, he said. They have families; both partners work; they need two jobs to survive.
The Kootenai County Fire Protection District had 15 new volunteers start its training course last year. Only two of those still remain, said Bob Shovald, a volunteer in charge of recruiting.
Of the 22 volunteers Kootenai County has, only five to eight can respond consistently. The same holds true for most departments. The few diehards get used a lot - so much so there is concern about burnout.
“I can remember occasions where I didn’t have a night off in a week,” Slover said.
It’s hardest for Chief Blackwell to summon enough firefighters during the weekdays, when most volunteers are working. Both he and Rathdrum Fire Chief Wayne Nowacki are considering hiring at least one firefighter next year to help them ensure they have an initial attack crew available for fires in the day.
But it’s spendy and taxpayers are increasingly frugal. To have a three-person team on 24 hours a day would cost around $300,000, Nowacki said.
To ensure enough firefighters show up, the departments have created mutual aid agreements in which outside agencies back up a department working on a fire.
Despite the hardships, those who volunteer are dedicated and say the excitement, camaraderie and emotional rewards make it pay off.
“It’s a rush,” Curlee said. “There’s this fire you’re going toward instead of running away from. You’re there to help.”
“When you get there on time and you’re able to put out a fire and you’re able to walk away and the house is still standing and a person’s possessions are still there - you feel good,” Aarestad said.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HELP WANTED Fire departments throughout Kootenai County are looking for volunteers. Jobs that need to be filled include firefighters, traffic control, computer work and dispatching, emergency medical service, inspection and education. Those interested in donating their time should call their local fire department for applications and training information. Fire officials ask that employers of volunteers give them time off to respond to fires.
This sidebar appeared with the story: HELP WANTED Fire departments throughout Kootenai County are looking for volunteers. Jobs that need to be filled include firefighters, traffic control, computer work and dispatching, emergency medical service, inspection and education. Those interested in donating their time should call their local fire department for applications and training information. Fire officials ask that employers of volunteers give them time off to respond to fires.