This article originally appeared in the October 20, 2019 issue of The Monitor Online. View clip online. Award: 3rd place best continuing news story, Div. 1: Weekly newspapers, Montana Newspaper Association 2020 Better Newspaper Contest.
Across rural America, public safety volunteers are in decline. Their dwindling ranks are determining how fires are fought and how emergency medical care is provided. Rural communities that have long relied heavily on volunteers for these services are struggling to fill the gap.
Jefferson County is among them.
According to the most recent National Fire Protection Association data, 682,600 volunteer firefighters comprised an estimated 65% of the nation’s firefighters in 2017 — a 6% decrease from the previous year and the lowest estimate since the NFPA started measuring it in 1986. In that time, the number of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people declined to 5.8 from 7.88. Most of those volunteer firefighters — 85% — served in departments protecting fewer than 10,000 people.
A May 2018 policy brief prepared by the National Rural Health Association cited similarly alarming statistics for emergency medical services: 69% of rural EMS directors surveyed in 2015 said it was difficult to recruit or retain volunteers, 55% said the difficulty was the same or getting worse, and almost one-third of rural EMS was reported to be “in immediate operational jeopardy.”
These and other studies, as well as local officials, cite a litany of reasons why fewer people are volunteering. Common explanations include more workers who commute to their jobs — preventing them from being available to respond to emergencies during the day — too many demands on peoples’ time and generational differences.
There are significant ramifications in Montana, where 93% of the state’s fire departments listed in the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Department Registry are all or mostly volunteer and three-fourths of the state relies on volunteer EMS services, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
In Jefferson County, where every fire department and two of three ambulance services are wholly staffed by volunteers, the crucial role they serve is clear.
“When people call 911, they expect somebody to be there,” said Doug Dodge, manager of the Jefferson County Department of Emergency Services and a volunteer firefighter for Clancy. “We have a very small but very dedicated group of people that will come in 99% of the cases. [But] people take some of that response for granted and there could be a day where there isn’t the response that you’d want because of lack of staffing. And the only answer to that is for people to get involved.”
“It’s scary,” said Bob Johnson, chief of Clancy Volunteer Fire Department. “You just don’t have the volunteer pool that you used to have.”
Changing communities are behind that decline, he suggested.
“There’s not a sense of community like there used to be,” Johnson said. In the past in Clancy, for example, there were “half a dozen or so families that occupied the area, all with kids,” he said. “The fathers were on the fire department, then the boys joined the fire department. And that was just what you did.”
The nature of the area’s workforce and where people are working have also changed since then, Johnson said. As a result, there are times of the day when few if any volunteers can respond to a call because many are working at jobs in Helena or elsewhere.
The problem is not unique to Clancy.
“One of our biggest problems is that everybody works out of town,” said Jeremy Ward, the chief of Whitehall Volunteer Fire Department. “From early in the morning to early evening, it’s tough to have a full crew to respond to calls.”
Bull Mountain Volunteer Fire Department Chief Cory Kirsch said his department, which shares volunteers and equipment with Boulder Volunteer Fire Department, can also be understaffed during the workday.
People working away from where they live affects not only existing volunteers’ ability to respond but also efforts to get people to volunteer in the first place. Ward said he’d like a volunteer roster in the “upper 20s” to augment and give relief to the department’s “pretty low” roster of about 14 members, “but it’s tough in these smaller communities to get to that.”
Boulder ambulance director Michele St. George — a juvenile probation officer by paid profession — said of the 10 EMTs and advanced EMTs on the volunteer roster, five are core responders.
“The biggest problem is finding people willing to give up their time,” said her colleague Molly Carey, the service’s assistant director and clinic coordinator for Jefferson County Health Department. “I can’t tell you how many birthday parties we’ve missed.”
Carey recalled one Christmas Eve when ambulance volunteers responded to five calls. Rather than eating dinner with family that night, they ate hotdogs at the Montana City Store, she said.
There’s more to the price volunteers pay than missed family events or lost sleep. Carey said it’s common for an ambulance volunteer — Boulder’s all have full-time jobs, she said — to use vacation time or unpaid time to respond to calls, which average two hours.
A handful of programs exist to help volunteer fire departments recruit and retain volunteers. One is the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One of these grants enabled the Montana State Fire Chiefs’ Association and Montana State Volunteer Firefighters Association to produce a recruitment website (mtvolunteer.org).
But “I don’t think we’ve gotten a single person from that kind of thing,” said Montana City Volunteer Fire Department Chief Lyn Stimpson. “Maybe the exposure to billboards or a TV ad planted a seed, but [I have seen] no direct results.”
Most of the department’s successful recruits “come the old fashioned way” through personal ties, word of mouth and “being a good organization that can take a prospect with potential and develop them,” he said.
“Lots of us work to recruit people for years before they join,” he said. “It’s mentally tough when it doesn’t work out, as many don’t. Being a responder is not for everyone. If it’s right for you, there is nothing better. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong and it’s not going to work out.”
Most every volunteer firefighter interviewed for this story said it’s important that a department be visible in the community to attract volunteers. Usually it means participating in events such as Easter egg hunts, Fourth of July fireworks displays and public safety fairs, but it takes other forms as well. In Montana City, Stimpson said visibility factored in the decision to build the main fire station near the I-15 interchange roundabout; in Jefferson City, Chief Karl “Bud” Siderits noted the value of opening the station’s doors and pulling out the trucks to clean them or perform other maintenance.
People interested in volunteering as a firefighter need no prior experience and must be at least 18. Most training is provided by individual departments.
Stimpson said Montana does not mandate how often volunteer firefighters train. “Departments may have it in their bylaws or policies,” he said by email. “It’s common to have an annual 30 hour rule because that’s the minimum for annual pension credit.”
The pension Stimpson refers to is courtesy the state’s Volunteer Firefighters’ Compensation Act and administered by the Public Employees’ Retirement Board. Established in 1965 by the Montana Legislature, the Act provides a monthly pension to firefighters who have met minimum service and other requirements.
In addition to the monthly training volunteer fire departments undergo, Montana City’s runs what Stimpson calls a “basic firefighter academy.”
“We do the academy on an as-needed basis, but it usually works out to every other year before there are enough new members across the county to run it,” Stimpson said by email. The cost of the academy is covered by the Jefferson County Rural Fire Council — Stimpson is currently president — and classes are held countywide at departments whose volunteers are enrolled.
Stimpson said the academy is volunteer-run and “a ton of work for our crew” and the students. The most recent class of 12 firefighters from Clancy, Jefferson City and Montana City, which wrapped up in late April, comprised 1188 man hours of training across the students and their instructors, he said at the time.
In EMS, certifying as an emergency medical technician, or EMT, typically takes about 120 hours, and it’s not uncommon for volunteers to pay their own way (Helena College’s EMT course costs about $1,000, St. George said).
St. George and Carey are both qualified to do much of the training, and like to have at least 10 students lined up before holding a certification class because the dropout rate is about 50%. They do what they can to ease a volunteer’s financial burden — if the student comes from another agency such as fire, law enforcement or search and rescue, they only charge for the cost of the textbook, workbook and test fee, St. George said.
The amount of interest and participation in EMT training rarely translates to a like amount of new rural volunteers, even without factoring in the dropout rate. A class held three days a week from January through April by Jefferson Valley EMS and Rescue volunteer ambulance service in Whitehall is a case in point. Service Manager Trent Biggers laid out the numbers: 40 people expressed interest in the class, 38 signed up for it and 26 finished it. Of those 26 students, only two are so volunteering for rural ambulance services, Biggers said, while six are paid employees of the emergency department at St. James Hospital in Butte.
Local law enforcement agencies do what they can to fill in the gaps. According to Sheriff Craig Doolittle, about 10 people on staff at the Sheriff’s Office are trained EMTs.
“In the past all the deputies were required to be first responder EMTs,” he said by email. “The system changed some over the years and it became very expensive and time consuming to continue making this a requirement. I agreed to continue paying for the ones who were EMTs to keep their certification. We now do a first-aid type class [of] CPR and AED certification for all the deputies and detention staff.”
At the Boulder Police Department, Chief Joe Canzona is exploring how his staff can help.
“At this time all the state requires of law enforcement is [our] being CPR certified,” he said by email. “But with the need in this small community for medically trained first responders, I have been looking into training that we can do to help with this issue. There is a First Responders course that I am trying to get set up in the spring after [Officer] Kyle [St. George] gets back from the academy. It’s not an EMT-level course, but it’s very in depth and would be a step in the right direction.”
In addition, some volunteer firefighters certify as EMTs.
Not all EMS calls result in taking a patient to the hospital. But for that to happen requires two volunteers — an EMT to stay with the patient in the back of the ambulance and someone to drive. St. George said some volunteer firefighters respond to drive when they can.
If no or only one volunteer is available to respond to a request for Boulder ambulance, a call goes out to the Montana City branch of Eagle Ambulance, a paid EMS provider.
Another recruitment program volunteer fire departments can use is a junior firefighter or cadet program. Some are homegrown, while others are offered through the National Volunteer Fire Council and other organizations.
The cadet program at Jefferson City Volunteer Fire Department has been a “real good” experience, according to Siderits. The program is open to Jefferson City Fire District residents who are 16- to 18-years-old. Cadets can train alongside their adult counterparts but cannot respond to emergency incidents until they are 18 and potentially eligible for membership in the department.
Siderits views the cadet program as more than a vehicle for boosting his own department’s volunteer roster.
“I encourage cadets,” he said. “It’s a great career opportunity.”
Of the three cadets that have gone through the program since it started four years ago, one attended and graduated from Helena College’s Fire and Rescue program and now is a firefighter for Montana DNRC, another is about to start that program and the third is planning to enroll in an emergency management program at a four-year college, Siderits said.
“Besides the cadet’s interest and personal drive, I value that they talk with me about a future in fire/emergency management,” Siderits said.
One of those three cadets is Sam Shepherd, 18. He entered Jefferson City’s cadet program at age 17, became a full volunteer member at 18 and enters Helena College’s program this fall.
“I followed my dad’s footsteps,” he said. “He wanted to do [volunteer] firefighting [again] and I talked to him about it and it seemed like something I wanted to do.”
Sam Shepherd was “five or six” when his father Derrek first volunteered as a firefighter for Clancy, but it wasn’t until he was 17 that he “really got interested.” That’s when Derrek Shepherd moved his family to Jefferson City after a decade working outside the county and asked Siderits if he and his son could join the department.
In April the father and son were among the 12 who graduated from Montana City’s basic firefighter academy. Derrek Shepherd, who had taken the class years before but repeated it to refresh his skills, said he “loved” the experience of training alongside his son.
Sam Shepherd encourages others teens to be a cadet and consider opportunities beyond.
“It’s really fun overall,” he said. “You can turn it into a career and even if you don’t, you’re going to have that knowledge that a lot of people don’t have.”
What many people don’t realize are the opportunities at a typical volunteer fire department that don’t require extensive training or putting one’s life on the line.
“You don’t have to be the one on the end of the hose in order to make a difference,” Dodge said.
As part of Clancy Volunteer Fire Department’s recruiting, Johnson tells people they “don’t need to be the one running into the burning building,” for there are “a million other things … that need to happen.”
“Everyone has a skill set and the fire department can use it,” he said.
Other county departments said much the same. Common volunteer opportunities include fundraising, controlling traffic, washing equipment, driving a firetruck — even checking the fire hall in winter to make sure the heat’s on and the trucks plugged in, said Derrek Shepherd.
“We always have to do stuff just to make sure everything’s ready to go,” he said. “[And] if we have a big fire, we need food and water for the firefighters.”
For those who volunteer, the rewards can be greater than the time commitment.
“Some [calls] are not really ones you look forward to,” Ward said. “[But] it is very rewarding … responding to somebody else’s time in need, to be able to help out where you can. And it’s humbling when you get people and what they’re going through thanking you.”
“That’s the blessing working for the fire department is the appreciation,” he said.
Derrek Shepherd said he enjoys helping people, but his motivation is fueled by pragmatism.
“The fire department’s all volunteers,” he said. “So if not me, then who? If there’s a fire, I’m hoping somebody will show up and if I’m not willing to step up, then I really can’t expect anybody else to step up and do it either.”