STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
When residents call 911 to report a fire or a medical emergency, they don’t care if the first responders are volunteers – though odds are they are.
“What they care about is the person showing up on scene is professional and they’re properly trained and provide the services that are needed,” said Justin Wickes, interim chief of Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District in western La Plata County.
Volunteers make up the majority of local fire departments, if not the entire department. Durango Fire & Rescue Authority has 48 career firefighters compared with 86 volunteers. They respond to medical calls, car crashes, technical rescues, wildland fires and house fires.
By day, they are truck drivers, financial advisers and airline pilots. They occasionally miss dinners, birthdays and anniversaries to help neighbors in need.
Because they are scattered throughout the region, they often are the first to arrive at an emergency.
Dave Tranum, 37, who has volunteered for 11 years with DFRA, was one of the first to respond to a fire that burned businesses Feb. 22, 2008, in the 700 block of Main Avenue, including Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, Le Rendezvous and Half-Price Tees.
Tranum went inside Le Rendezvous to assess the situation and search for occupants. He was about to go downstairs when he realized it would be difficult to communicate on his radio. He walked outside to inform someone where he would be, and while doing so, the building blew up – a blast that likely would have trapped him inside, he said.
“It brought home the fact that volunteer or not, this is the real deal,” Tranum said. “This is not a game. Whether you’re volunteer or a paid guy, it really is life or death decision-making.”
Decades ago, volunteer firefighters gathered at fire stations to socialize, drink beer, play cards and respond to fire calls, if necessary.
Times have changed.
“Alcohol in the firehouse is definitely gone,” Wickes said. “I don’t know any agency in the United States that does that anymore.”
Now, volunteers are expected to attend regular classes, obtain certifications and exemplify the values of a professional fire department. It is a higher level of commitment than it used to be, said Capt. Mike Krupa, with DFRA.
Call volumes are higher and volunteers are given more latitude to confront dangerous situations, he said.
“Years ago, we didn’t have a certification program built as it is today,” he said.
Volunteers with DFRA meet three hours every Tuesday night to study and train. They choose if they want to specialize in medical response, wildland firefighting, structural firefighting, technical rescue or hazardous material cleanup – but all receive some cross-training, Krupa said.
“If someone comes in and says ‘I want to volunteer,’ I’d really love to find a way to plug them in,” he said.
In addition to attending regular classes, volunteers are expected to respond to calls when they are able to and when their response would make a difference, Krupa said.
“We obviously understand that they’re volunteering, and there are times they can’t break away from work, they can’t break away from a family event or they’re out of town,” he said. “Our main focus really is: When you’re available, please come help.”
It’s not all work and no play.
Volunteers have found a second family in the fire department. They make friends they otherwise would not have, and their efforts are recognized at special events for the whole family.
Tranum is the manager of Morgan Stanley on Main Avenue. Customers and friends sometimes are amazed to learn he also has a leadership role as a volunteer with DFRA.
During the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire, he helped evacuate residents who also are his clients, he said.
“I have friends today because of the fire department who I never would have met or crossed paths with,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. It has become an absolute passion for me.”
At all hours
While volunteers have found a second family with the fire department, their service can take a toll on their first family.
Volunteers constantly monitor a pager or scanner for calls.
Tranum said he is awakened about five nights a week by the scanner. He doesn’t need to respond to most of those, but sometimes he does.
“Big calls or close calls, that’s the stuff we tend to go to,” he said.
If he is awakened at 2 a.m. during a snowstorm for a call that is nearby, he goes, he said, because he doesn’t want to show up at training knowing that his fellow volunteers went on the call but he rolled over and went back to sleep.
“It does put stress on a family,” Tranum said. “It takes an amazing spouse to support that.”
Garrett Vogel, 29, of Marvel, was born into a firefighting family. His father began volunteering with Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District in 1983, the same year he was born.
“There were lots of times where I would go to bed knowing that he was there, and wake up and he wasn’t there. I asked mom, ‘Where’s dad?’ ‘Oh, he’s out on a fire,’ or ‘He’s out on a car wreck,’” Vogel said.
“There were lots of family dinners missed,” Vogel said. “There were quite a few times he wasn’t home for my sister’s birthday because it is during the summer months. He also missed quite a few of his own birthdays.
“I know there were some rough times between my parents just because of the fact that he was gone quite a bit, especially when he was doing the wildland fires,” Vogel said. “Having a good relationship between husband and wife, I think, was the key to my dad being able to have done it as long as he has.”
Vogel, a professional truck driver, followed in his father’s footsteps.
He became a junior firefighter at age 14 with the Fort Lewis Mesa fire district and now is a volunteer fire captain.
“It’s a way for me to give to the community without having to give money to the community,” he said. “When someone dials 911, it’s because they’re having the worst day of their lives and they need someone there. I feel that I have the time and experience to help them in their hour of need.”