Jobs, home life leave less time for training, responding
By Mandi Donohue
From the top of Washington Pass to two miles south of Carlton — a distance of some 50 miles and an area of roughly 350 square miles — the Methow Valley is served by just five paid, full-time firefighters. That means a heavy reliance on volunteer firefighters to respond to emergencies ranging from structure and wildland fires to vehicle accidents.
But the number of volunteers has dwindled nationally, and is at critically low levels in the Methow.
“We just don’t have the people,” says Dave Crosby, a volunteer in the Mazama station. “It’s our biggest problem as a fire department. None of the stations have enough.”
“We should have three times as many,” agrees his fellow volunteer, Alan Fahnestock.
Ideally each of the four stations in Okanogan County Fire District 6 would have between 20 and 25 volunteers on call, according to Interim Fire Chief Cody Acord. But at this point, the entire territory is served by only about 35 volunteers.
The time and specialization demanded of most modern jobs has contributed to the decline in volunteers, Acord said. “They put in long hours every day at their job, come home and have little ones and stuff they have to do at home,” he said.
Lifestyle preferences are another factor, Acord said. More people now live in remote areas and at greater distances from central communities, or have longer commutes to work. When people lived closer together in a town, a siren would alert the community to emergencies and people would run to assist. “People live so far out now,” he says.
And today’s volunteer firefighter also must meet more rigorous qualifications. Rather than just showing up to do whatever needed doing, recruits now take required courses over several months and are drilled by the paid professionals to ensure they understand firefighting basics — everything from tying knots to proper use of equipment.
“If you’re watching that firefighter’s back,” Acord says, “he’s expecting you to know that knowledge and have that ability.”
Once certified, volunteers also are expected to attend weekly meetings to keep their skills updated. Specialized training, such as driving the fire engines or working controls of the pumps, is optional.
The time demands makes recruitment difficult, especially of younger people. Crosby says the average age of volunteer firefighters here is now close to 60. He’s 63 and has been a volunteer with the district for four years. Fahnestock is 64 and a five-year volunteer.
But a shortage of volunteers can have costly consequences, according to Acord. Response times to emergency calls will be slower, and structures will burn longer, he said. And volunteers, who are paid $10 per event, save taxpayers in Fire District 6 an estimated $2.4 million a year, according to Acord’s calculation of what it would cost to support paid crews for round-the-clock coverage.
“It is definitely a commitment and definitely a need,” Acord said. “Please volunteer.”
Typically, only 50 percent of volunteers per station will have the time and ability to show up to a call. So at a station like Mazama — that currently has only seven volunteers — “that really leaves us with three-and-a-half people,” Crosby says.
Not to mention, one is out with a knee problem and another splits his time between here and Alaska,” Fahnestock continues.
The decline in volunteer firefighters is a nationwide problem, and exacerbated by a dramatic increase in the number of emergency calls. In the last 30 years, the number of volunteers has dropped from a high of 898,000 in 1984 to 808,000 in 2015, according to statistics kept by the National Volunteer Fire Council.
But during that same period, call volume has tripled, from just under 12 million a year to almost 34 million. That’s because volunteers are now tapped to respond to a greater range of emergencies, calls for medical emergencies have risen and there are more automatic fire alarms.
“Therein lies a lot of the issue for these departments,” said Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications for the volunteer council.
The volunteer council recently launched a nationwide recruitment campaign to “get the younger generation back in,” Quiros said. A survey at the beginning of the campaign found that 44 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds were interested in volunteering, but many didn’t know their local departments needed more recruits.
“There’s a big awareness gap,” Quiros said.
Small communities impacted
Small communities in rural areas are especially hard hit as young people leave for better job opportunities in urban areas or young couples work multiple jobs to make ends meet, she said. “And any community with under 2,500 people is protected entirely by volunteers,” she said.
The unincorporated area of Mazama hasn’t experienced a wildfire in more than a decade, and might only receive 15-20 calls in a busy year. But that doesn’t minimize the potential problems. For example, aside from the Edelweiss community, Mazama has no water hydrants. The Mazama Station houses a structure engine, commonly known as a fire truck, a tender truck that holds back-up water and a brush truck used to fight wildfires.
The equipment is in good shape and upgrades are scheduled regularly, but with no hydrants available, firefighters have to rely on the water at hand. A fire truck holds 1,000 gallons of water, and is capable of running 1,250 gallons a minute through its hoses, meaning it empties in less than a minute. A tender holds 3,000 gallons, but even at that “you need guys running back and forth to a water source as fast as they can,” Crosby says. “It’s crazy.”
Those challenges aside, both Crosby and Fahnestock agree that once you become a volunteer firefighter, you’re hooked. “The adrenaline— unlike anything I’ve ever done in my life,” Crosby says. “Spike-oh! Your mind is thinking and your heart is beating from the minute you leave the house.”
Crosby also says he’s benefited personally from his firefighting experience. He has learned how to better protect his own house and how to identify risks in the surrounding neighborhood.
For information about becoming a volunteer firefighter, visit their website: http://okanogancountyfd6.com or reach out to your local fire station.