Volunteer shortage looms
In Eastern Washington and North Idaho, where professional firefighters are the minority, filling the ranks of needed volunteers is becoming increasingly difficult.
Lengthy training requirements and the inaccessibility of instruction, as well as increasingly busy residents in small communities, get the blame from fire officials worried about the dwindling volunteer force.
The days are fading when a sounding fire alarm brings volunteer firefighters rushing in from throughout a community to grab a fire hose.
“Being a volunteer firefighter is way more complicated than that,” said Greg Wetzel, training officer for Kootenai County Fire and Rescue. “People just don’t seem to have the time.”
A recent training academy for Whitman County, for example – a first for that area – required participants to put in 180 hours over nine weeks. Connie Sakamoto, 53, and her husband, Jim, who volunteer with the Colfax Fire Department, said the training was valuable but the schedule was stressful.
The couple, who both hold down full-time jobs Monday through Friday, attended the academy from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, then all day Saturday and Sunday. In addition, the volunteers had to study for tests.
Some days, they’d get done with the training at 10 or 11 p.m., try to eat something, go to sleep and then be up a couple hours later to do it again, Connie Sakamoto said.
“Even though everybody loved it, it was hard,” she said. “You have your obligations for your family and your life.”
Twenty-three people ranging in age from 18 to 55 graduated from the academy last Sunday.
Until the recent academy, the only training available in Whitman County came from hours spent at fire stations working alongside those more experienced in the fire service.
Volunteer firefighters there are normally required to spend at least two training days per month at the station. Ranking officers are required to spend at least four days a month. And that doesn’t include the time spent responding to emergencies.
Volunteers in Kootenai County have to take 240 hours of training for firefighting and almost twice that to be an emergency medical technician, Wetzel said. Then volunteers are asked to put in monthly hours at the department and help at community events.
Being an unpaid firefighter “is a huge commitment,” said Mike Brown, executive director of Washington Fire Chiefs.
“Retaining and recruiting volunteers has changed as our culture has changed,” Brown added. “It’s no longer a community-based society where you go home and take care of your community.”
Washington and Idaho officials say they’re lucky if they retain between 10 percent to 25 percent of those who train to become volunteer firefighters.
“There’s a continuing reduction of volunteers, not only statewide, but nationwide,” said T.J. Nedrow, president of the Washington State Firefighters Association. In his opinion, “the world today is much more self-centered and self-servicing.”
Colfax Fire Chief Ralph Walter, who helped organize the recent academy in Whitman County, said when it comes to filling a community’s emergency service needs, “I think the wave of the future is for firefighters to be paid full time or paid on call.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Walter is right. The number of firefighters is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2014, but most job growth will come from volunteer positions becoming paid jobs.