Some people volunteer to serve on a board of directors. Others do hands-on tasks such as building trails or providing refreshments at events. And in La Plata County, there are 94 volunteers who provide emergency services to their community.
But the problem is recruiting the volunteers, particularly in the more rural areas of the county.
“Volunteer recruitment is something every agency in the country is struggling with,” said Upper Pine Fire Protection District Chief Bruce Evans. “But especially in La Plata County, where the cost of living is so high, very few people can afford to volunteer the time required.”
As of Jan. 1, Upper Pine, which serves Bayfield, Forest Lakes and Vallecito, eliminated its volunteer positions, instead moving to part-time paid positions for people who completed the necessary certification hours, Evans said.
Los Pinos Fire Protection District, which serves the southeast portion of the county, including Ignacio, eliminated its volunteer positions about two months ago, Deputy Chief Tom Aurnhammer said.
“It’s a tremendous commitment, and I give laurels to those who do it, but we just didn’t have any volunteers who could put in those hours,” he said.
It’s no small commitment. At the Durango Fire Protection District, its 80 volunteers average 82 hours a year of training each. And of the 4,500 calls the department responds to each year, at least one volunteer responds to 1,000 of those.
“A lot of our calls are non-emergency, like a scheduled transport from one facility to another,” DFPD Deputy Chief Hal Doughty said. “And these volunteers are giving us a lot of their time already. We only want to call them when we need them.”
He admits the DFPD is in a unique position, with a robust group of trained volunteers.
Shrinking volunteer base
Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District Chief Chris Anderson finds himself working long hours as he copes with a shrinking volunteer base. It provides services to the western side of the county.
“In 2000 or so, we had 30 experienced volunteers,” he said, “but now we’re down to 14, with eight that are very active. It used to be we had a lot of farmers out here, but now most people work in Durango or Farmington or Cortez, so we only have three volunteers who are able to respond during the work day.”
Only Anderson and Assistant Chief Garrett Vogel are salaried at the district, so the volunteers make up almost the entire staff of the department. Anderson’s district covers 357 square miles and serves about 2,000 people, responding to 170 to 200 calls each year.
“The national standard is that you should have at least 15 people on a structure fire and be on scene in four minutes,” Anderson said. “We’re so spread out and so dependent on our few volunteers, we’ll never be able to reach that.”
The smaller districts depend on mutual-aid agreements with other fire protection districts to bolster their staffing and equipment on major incidents, he said.
“And even with the mutual aid from other fire departments, it can take a tanker truck from Durango Fire 45 minutes to get to a scene,” he said. “That gives a wildland fire plenty of time to really get going.”
He would like to see a countywide fire protection district, just as the county has only one sheriff’s office.
“That idea has been floated several times,” Evans said. “But I’m not sure a larger district would want to consolidate with the rural districts with their financial commitments and limited tax bases.”
Upper Pine and Los Pinos, both of which depend on oil and gas revenues to some extent, have been told to expect a 60 percent drop in revenues from that sector for 2015. Upper Pine district voters approved a significant mill levy for that district, so they’re not going to be hit as hard.
Los Pinos can’t say the same.
“I’m not the numbers guy, but it has the potential to really affect our service delivery levels,” Aurnhammer said.
What it takes to volunteer
Before a volunteer can report to a call, a significant amount of training is required, some of it by state law.
While it is lower for Fort Lewis Mesa than the DFPD, it still requires both initial training and ongoing training to retain certifications. State law requires 36 hours of training annually to retain Firefighter 1 certification. And many volunteers at the DFPD train to be prepared to respond to different kinds of calls, Administrative Battalion Chief Michael Krupa said.
“We allow them to find the areas where they want to serve,” he said. “It could be structure or wildland fires, emergency medical services, technical rescues, hazardous materials response or all of the above.”
The training at DFPD begins with 15 hours of department orientation before a volunteer selects a track. To receive Firefighter 1 certification, for example, 160 hours of training is required, with 40 hours needed for introduction to wildland fire behavior. Volunteer training is held every Tuesday night, beginning with wildland fires in the spring to be prepared for the summer season.
As much as possible, they try to make the trainings hands-on, said fire training Capt. Steve Gallagher of the DFPD, standing in the yard at Basin Towing & Repair on Tuesday as volunteers practiced extracting people from vehicles damaged in crashes. For the last month, Basin has dedicated a portion of its yard and 60 wrecked cars from its inventory for all of DFPD’s firefighters, both career and volunteer, to learn the latest in extraction techniques.
“It changes all the time,” Gallagher said. “Learning what to do if a 20-year-old Cadillac and a 2015 Prius have crashed into each other means you need to know how to stabilize the vehicles, whether you can snip the metal or need a saw, what to do if you have to extricate even more quickly because a patient’s injuries are so critical, how to be as safe as possible for us and them.”
Anderson holds training every Thursday night at Fort Lewis Mesa, but it’s often discouraging to plan a training and then have no one show up, he said.
“And we don’t have a high volume of calls, so it’s difficult for them to get experience,” he said. “For a lot of young firefighters, they join because they want the excitement, and that’s not a frequent occurrence out here.”
For the DFPD, the extensive training makes all the difference at the scene.
“Our volunteers and career staff work together seamlessly,” Doughty said. “A fire doesn’t care who’s volunteer and who’s paid. Homeowners see the same red truck, the same tools, the same professionalism.”
Volunteering makes a difference
There are possible pension benefits for longtime volunteers as well as access to exercise equipment and health-care screenings. And it can be a foot in the door to a career firefighter position. Doughty, Krupa and Gallagher all started as volunteers and estimate about 80 percent of the current paid staff started as volunteers.
“They’re dispersed throughout the district and are often first on the scene,” Doughty said about the volunteers, “and are often giving us valuable information as we’re en route.”
In a busy county with so much growth, they also provide the depth to respond to multiple calls at once, Gallagher said. That happens on about 25 percent of calls according to Doughty.
“There are other things that are going to happen while we’re at a major incident,” Doughty said. “Mrs. Smith is still going to have a heart attack. Mr. Jones is still going to have a car accident; we still have our normal call volume. Volunteers help us provide our high service levels.”