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Sue Lani Madsen: Volunteer fire crews represent best of community

Thirty years ago, a neighbor remarked it might be time to retire from the fire department because that “step up into the truck is getting higher every year.” Now I know what he meant. I’ll be turning 70 the year my EMT certification is next up for renewal, and I won’t be climbing into the back of a fire truck unless there’s a parade and I’m tossing candy.

Until I moved to Lincoln County in 1978, I’d never given a thought to who responded when you called 911 and certainly never thought it would be me.

So how did a city girl raised in Spokane find herself 33 years into an avocational career in volunteer fire and rescue?

It all started with being a Camp Fire leader and needing a first aid card so we could take the girls camping. To this day I swear my neighbor Jerry didn’t tell me taking the first responder course he was teaching meant I was signing up for a minimum of one year on the fire department, but I’m so glad I did it anyway.

Most recruitment into the fire service is like mine, by word of mouth from family and friends. We stay for the same reasons emphasized by a panel of firefighters from the United States, Australia, Greece, Africa and Ecuador gathered Wednesday on Zoom to celebrate International Firefighters’ Day. Everywhere in the world, it’s about being a part of a team and serving the community.

The annual event was established in memory of five members of an Australian volunteer fire brigade who were overrun when the wind shifted. They were on the way to refill their water tender when their truck was enveloped in fire. Matt, Stuart, Jason, Garry and Chris of Geelong West lost their lives.

I’ve seen how fast the wind can push a fire through sagebrush country. Assigned to scout ahead of a fire, we could see the smoke rising nearly three miles away as our truck responded on mutual aid to an unfamiliar area. We were downwind on a windy day.

At this point in the story, anyone who has ever memorized the 18 Watch Out Situations has started shaking their head. So were we, about a half-hour later when we realized we’d have to create a water curtain and drive through the flame front into the black. There isn’t time in such a situation for your entire life to flash before your eyes, only a few seconds to mentally kick yourself before taking evasive action. Unlike our colleagues from Geelong West, we were still full of water and had options.

Most fire service stories aren’t as dramatic. Most aren’t even fires, but medical calls to everything from … well, just everything. Trauma, cardiac, mental health, general illness, choking baby, delivering a baby, hypothermia, allergic reactions, even a call once to a neighbor who was afraid the powder in an envelope he’d just opened was anthrax. We reassured him it was just a badly thought-out solicitation from a charity providing powdered milk to orphans.

Lincoln County Fire District 4 Chief Jim Adams, whose day job is insurance company fire investigator, recently attended a meeting of the International Association of Arson Investigators. “When I tell them how many miles we cover with the equipment and number of personnel we have, they are astonished, and yet we are held to the same standard of care for both fire and EMS. The only thing we are given a pass on is the performance metric for response time. We have a very well-trained and professional crew, although the same dwindling numbers problem common among rural and volunteer departments around the country.”

Volunteer firefighters aren’t just farmers and ranchers. Volunteers over the years in our district have included a waitress, truck drivers, nurses, corporate executives, teachers, a preacher, a pharmacist, small shopkeepers, an architect, a machinist, an engineer, heavy equipment operators, an accountant, farmhands, homemakers, mechanics, office managers, a mail carrier, and bank tellers. It’s a culture where American work-based class boundaries dissolve. As the Aussie on the panel said today, culture is king in the volunteer fire brigades, a culture representing the entire community and where people say “I want to be a part of that.”

Gordon Hester, president and CEO of Kiemle Hagood, is also a longtime volunteer with Spokane County Fire District 10. He was elected as a Fire District Commissioner in 2019 and spent International Firefighters’ Day in strategic planning sessions discussing volunteer recruiting and retention. “One of the most enjoyable parts is working across ages, from active 20-year-old kids to 65-year-olds on support duty. We’ve had to be creative and look for ways everyone can participate. If you don’t want to carry a shovel and swing a Pulaski, maybe you can fill air bottles and hand out granola bars.”

Asked for their best advice for recruiting the next generation, a longtime volunteer from Guayaquil, Ecuador, summed it up for the international panelists. “The best reward is the smile of a family in appreciation, whether paid or volunteer. Volunteers understand what a gift this is. Firefighters run towards the disaster and when we return we try to transfer this tradition to the next generation, to transfer our knowledge and our hearts.”

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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