USA — A fire or car crash in Portland, Salem or other sizable Oregon city will quickly summon paid professional firefighters.
But if your house is on fire in rural Oregon, chances are that it’s your friends and neighbors — volunteer firefighters — who show up.
Because rural residents depend on volunteers, fire officials throughout Oregon are struggling as the ranks age and spots go unfilled with younger recruits.
The shortage of new firefighters and retention of existing volunteers is “the No. 1 issue that volunteer departments have,” says Scott Mullen, training officer for volunteer-staffed Nehalem Bay Fire and Rescue and president of the Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association. “Old-timers still volunteer,” he said. “The time demands and requirements for training weren’t as great when they started. Young people are having a tougher time finding the time that needs to be put in.”
Between 2005 and 2010 the nation’s volunteer ranks shrunk by 12 percent, Mullen says. In Oregon, where four-fifths of the 10,000 firefighters are volunteers, declines are in line with that trend, he says.
Adding to the concern is that not all volunteers can respond to individual calls for service because some are out of town, unable to leave work or have had a couple of Sunday afternoon beers.
In Joseph, a town of 800 in Wallowa County, the all-volunteer fire department has 18 firefighters. On average, a response summons about six, Fire Chief Tom Clevenger said.
If it’s a structure fire, that’s a serious stretch. Federal regulations require firefighters to work in pairs, and if two enter a burning building, two others must stay outside ready to rescue them if necessary. Another firefighter must operate the engine’s pump, and current standards call for both an incident commander and a safety officer.
The reasons for the downturn in recruits are varied but frequently involve the time commitment. The era has long passed when all a recruit needed was to know how to find the nozzle end of a fire hose and aim it at the flames.
Today the state’s training requirements are no easier for volunteers than for career firefighters, according to Mark Ayers,head of fire training for the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
Initial training varies by agency but typically involves a minimum of 72 to 80 hours. Once certified at the first rank, a firefighter must put in another 60 hours a year to stay certified.
For many, the training requirement and availability for emergency calls conflict with the needs of today’s families in which both parents work.
“Volunteering has evolved,” noted Stella Hickey, who heads the state’s Fire Corps volunteer program and is married to a Hermiston firefighter. “People have many activities, moms take on second jobs and that doesn’t leave a lot of hours for volunteering.”
There’s also a shift from blue-collar jobs, Hickey said. “A lot of people with white-collar jobs look at a very physical job and don’t want to do that kind of work.”
Fire Chief Eugene Walters of the Juniper Flat Rural Fire Protection District in Wasco County — owner of a general store and a member of the department since 1976 — also has seen a generational difference.
“With the older generation, there was a feeling that everybody helped everybody get by,” he said.”Times have changed. These days, everybody is busy. Both parents have jobs and have kids in school with a lot more sports for them to play and less time for anything else. The new generation wants to help but wants to get paid for it. “
As noncash compensation, Walters designs his department’s training for the new age of volunteer firefighting.
“You have to keep it interesting and fun, and leave them having learned something,” he said.
At Juniper Flat, grilled hamburgers whet the appetite for each week’s training, and the department has rewards. Depending on the number of hours of training a firefighter has racked up, he or she can get a cap, T-shirt, sweatshirt, flashlight or other bonus.
“We also keep it interesting by adding new missions,” Walters said. “We need refreshers on subjects like wildland fires, but nobody wants to hear the same thing over and over. This year we are adding auto extrication and rope rescue.”
Less obvious obstacles Other than the inherent dangers of firefighting, some obstacles are less obvious.
La Grande Fire Chief Bruce Weimer oversees a Union County department with both career firefighters and volunteers. On-duty firefighters respond to a call and are assisted only on major incidents by volunteer reservists.For weeks, Weimer recruited volunteer reservists who are paid “a little more than minimum wage per call,” he said. One member of his reserves is his son, a schoolteacher.
“He is required to be alert at his first class in the morning,” Weimer said. “It makes sense that he will think twice about responding to a call at night that might last for hours.”
Weimer said his department faces the same recruiting challenges as all-volunteer departments, except that he has access to students in Eastern Oregon University’s fire services administration program who want on-the-job experience during the academic year.
“The response has been disappointing,” Weimer said of the recruiting effort. “It’s a struggle.”
La Grande has found that volunteers leave the reserve ranks, Weimer said, because the work is “90 percent training and 5 percent firefighting. It’s a misconception that volunteer firefighting is social and exciting. They are called to general-alarm fires, and we have maybe 10 of those a year.”
In the end, volunteer departments may have to transform themselves and find ways to pay salaries. Clevenger said the long-term solution for his county probably is to merge four city departments and two rural fire districts into a single large district with a tax base that will support a paid staff.
That would not be easy, he said, as city councils would have to surrender their authority and taxes might increase for some residents.