IGNACIO – When Greg Childress stopped by a fire academy in Florida to pick up an application, he didn’t know what an “EMT” was, but he thought he might find an interesting job. The decision launched Childress into an 18-year career in the fire services and a new division chief position in Ignacio.
“When you look back on it, there’s a series of very small decisions that forever change your path,” Childress said.
On Sept. 9, Childress joined the Los Pinos Fire Protection District as a division chief to take on a new challenge: starting a volunteer program for the short-staffed agency.
Los Pinos is strained with staff and finances. The agency has five crew members on staff for a 325 square-mile district in southeast La Plata County. It recently hired two new crew members and is searching for grants to support its services. Childress, the former volunteer coordinator at Durango Fire Protection District, came to the agency ready to tackle new challenges.
“Greg built an incredible program at Durango Fire,” said Chief Tony Harwig at a Los Pinos Board of Directors meeting.
Harwig said the district needs a volunteer program. In early September, the small crew had 17 calls in one weekend. Then, they had four people on what should have been a 20-person fire, he said. The crew can only respond to one call at a time. If a second call comes in, they seek assistance from Upper Pine Fire Protection District headquartered in Bayfield.
“One way or another, we’re going to have volunteers in this establishment,” Harwig said.
Although the volunteer program will require a financial investment, the agency expects to get an added value of up to $40,000 every quarter, depending on how many volunteers sign up, Childress said.
The department plans on having multiple volunteer levels, although details could change. Non-emergency volunteers wouldn’t respond to calls but could help with web design, inventory or other department needs.
Incident response volunteers would have multiple roles. For example, they could be fully certified firefighter/emergency medical responders or part of a network of scouts around the district. The scouts would help the department make informed decisions about resource deployment by reporting incident characteristics before crews arrive.
Volunteers will likely need a high school degree, a Colorado driver’s license and a background check that doesn’t exclude volunteers with minor past offenses. All volunteers would receive CPR training and access to certifications that could set them on a career path in fire services, Childress said. Trainings will likely start next spring.
Harwig said Childress was a great addition, in part because of his teaching style. Childress said one asset he has as a teacher is his ability to speak “dumb redneck,” which came from growing up with truck drivers in the rural South, he said. It helps him break down technical language for any learner.
His teaching philosophy, which he described using the phrase “highfalutin’ philosophical standpoint,” focuses on learners’ existing strengths and promoting group dialogues.
Finding volunteers could be challenging: recruitment is down across the nation. Nationally, 70% of firefighters are volunteers, and their numbers have been going down steadily for years, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
Childress – sporting two full sleeves of tattoos and a Los Pinos T-shirt – explained that, in his experience, the trend comes down to motivation. “The spirit of volunteerism is not dead,” he said.
He said volunteers lose motivation if they feel unnecessary or if the incidents they respond to align with their expectations. If someone does lose motivation, Childress helps them focus on small victories, like supporting a child who’s in pain after breaking his or her arm.
“You stack these small moments together and say, you are making a difference,” he said.
Childress came to Los Pinos because he wanted to pick up “something heavy” and to help tackle the obstacles facing the agency.
For now, Childress is settling into his second week on the job. “Right now, most of what I’m trying to do is just learn.”