Volunteer firefighters protect about half of Colorado’s residents, with solely volunteer departments being responsible for about 70 percent of the state’s land surface. And they are significantly understaffed.
The Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association estimates Colorado is short 3,500 volunteers in meeting National Fire Protection Agency standards. That would require an increase of more than 40 percent to the present force.
“Generally, all fire departments that have volunteers need more volunteers,” said Garry Briese, executive director of the fire chiefs association.
Like their career counterparts, volunteers are expected to respond at all hours of day and night, often over extended distances, and in all weather conditions. They face the same obstacles, inherent health risks and physical dangers. The difference is that they don’t get paid.
There are 198 all-volunteer departments in Colorado serving more than 450,000 residents and an additional 137 agencies that are a combination of career and volunteer firefighters. These “hybrid” stations serve 2.2 million residents, and 33 of them have only one or two paid firefighters.
To give perspective to the size and shape of all volunteer fire departments against their vast responsibilities, they average nine firefighters per 1,000 residents and six per 100 square miles, an area about two-thirds the size of Denver.
A Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analysis of state fire agency records highlights the critical role played by volunteers, as well as the impact of shortages on response times and numbers of responders. The data show:
At least 43 departments are completely within the Colorado red zone – the territory most prone to destructive wildfires. Twelve of those departments are made up entirely of volunteers, and 25 are hybrid departments. The red-zone departments protect more than 300,000 Coloradans.
On average, all-volunteer departments took 30 minutes to muster six firefighters to a wildfire, while hybrid departments averaged almost 45 minutes to reach similar incidents with fewer than five responders, according to a state survey.
The average response time to all fire categories was 18 minutes with fewer than six responders, numbers below recommendations set by the NFPA. A volunteer department in a designated rural area should send at least six respondents to an incident within 14 minutes. The standards allows for four respondents in designated remote areas. The majority of areas protected by volunteers in Colorado are considered rural or remote.
“Volunteers go out sometimes with two or even just one person,” Briese said. “But the optimal number is four, and we want no less than three – but to do that we would need a pool of about 30 volunteers (for each department).”
Of the 198 all-volunteer stations, 162 departments – or 82 percent – have fewer than 30 volunteers.
S.W. Colo. relies on volunteers
Southwest Colorado has multiple stations that fall into that category, and some very close. Silverton San Juan Volunteer Fire Department has a 29-person all-volunteer force. Pleasant View (15), Lewis-Arriola (29), Dove Creek (27) and Dolores (34) are several examples.
Pagosa Fire Protection District runs with 55 volunteers and six employees, according to I-News research. Fort Lewis Mesa has 18 volunteers and two employees. Even Durango Fire Protection District relies heavily on its 73 volunteers, who help 45 employees.
The Peyton Fire Protection District east of Colorado Springs, for example, protects a population of more than 10,000 Coloradans and 110 square miles, but has only 15 volunteers.
Mike Heckard, volunteer lieutenant in Peyton, said the obligations faced by volunteers, primarily work, and their short numbers, can mean that only one volunteer will respond.
“Sometimes, we have volunteers who will be at the station, and, when we get a call, they can respond straight from here,” Heckard said. “But a lot of our members work in Colorado Springs which is about half an hour away – so it really depends on the time of day we get the call.”
Heckard said nights and weekend emergencies see faster response times and more responders.
“Obviously, time is a concern for us,” said Daniel Hatlestad, deputy chief of the Inter-Canyon Volunteer Fire Department in Jefferson County. “Fires change – it is extremely rapid in a house fire, where it can literally double in just a matter of minutes.”
But with few volunteers available, especially during the work week, longer response times can be inevitable.
Sometimes first responders
In 2012, the Inter-Canyon volunteers were among the first responders to the Lower North Fork Fire, one of the first in a series of highly destructive fires that year.
“It destroyed 28 structures (including 22 homes), and three people died,” Hatlestad said. “Ultimately, it took hundreds of firefighters, volunteers and career, to beat that one.
“This year, we have had only two very, very small wildland fires,” he said. “It’s all dependent on the weather – but in other years, we will have tremendous land fires.”
Volunteer firefighters are also first responders in case of medical emergencies, motor-vehicle accidents and natural disasters. Only 15 percent of their calls are to actual fires.
“People see the fire department as that one source for emergencies,” Hatlestad said. “We have assisted in horse rescues, hazardous materials, rope rescues – like in searches near the canyons – and that’s a completely different set of talents and knowledge to complete those kinds of rescues.”
Training also can cost a significant amount of time and money. Then there is fundraising, which can be burdensome.
“Many of the all-volunteer departments raise their money with things like pancake breakfasts,” Briese said. They host fundraisers, apply for grants or establish support through local tax levies.
Most volunteers face the struggle of balancing their careers, families and futures with the time commitment to train and the physical risks of volunteering.
As these volunteers consider the needs of their community, they say the benefit of taking on these challenges outweighs the risks.
“It’s what I love to do, I love helping people, I love the family that we have down here, I love everything about it to be honest,” Heckard said. “There’s no paycheck that they can write you for the feeling that you get when you are able to help someone.”
The Durango Herald brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Katie Kuntz at firstname.lastname@example.org.