As Call Volumes Grow, Local Fire Departments Rely on Mutual Aid to Backfill Volunteer Shortages

First in a Series

When we hear the fire siren in town sound off, how many of us automatically assume the fire trucks that roll are fully staffed for the type of incident they are going to?

It’s a question that led The Enterprise to look into the state of staffing in our three local, mostly volunteer fire departments in an age when volunteering has become less prevalent in small communities like Bingen and White Salmon.

The face of the volunteer fire department itself has changed in character in recent years. In addition to being the primary emergency response entity, more and more agencies have taken on the additional responsibility of emergency medical response within their jurisdictions.

Both White Salmon Fire and Klickitat County Fire District No. 3 (FD3) have aid trucks that provide basic life support emergency medical services (EMS) to back up the advanced life support services that Klickitat County Emergency Medical Services District No. 1 ambulances offer.

The three fire departments coordinate at the operational level under the Southwest Fire mutual aid pact. The departments are alerted to service calls in southwest Klickitat County simultaneously, no matter the jurisdiction. All three are supposed to respond, if able.

Fire departments in Washing-ton, moreover, have a statutory obligation to respond to all types of fires in their jurisdictions. It doesn’t always mean, however, that the truck that rolls out of the station is adequately manned.

Inside the numbers

The White Salmon Volunteer Fire Department’s membership currently stands at 21 active, qualified firefighters — the same number of members it had in 2012. The average age of a White Salmon firefighter is 43.

White Salmon Fire membership has fluctuated over the six-year period being examined. Between 2013 and 2015, the average size of membership was about 29 (27 to 31 to 28). Between 2015 and 2017, the department lost six firefighters — even as call volumes (including EMS responses) increased from 164 to 169 to 204 last year.

Put another way, between 2007 and 2017, White Salmon Fire’s call volume increased 371%. Historically, the department has experienced 18.3% growth in call volume per year.

With 21 members available, every White Salmon fire call in 2017 theoretically could have been staffed by about 10 firefighters. That was the average response per call in 2007 and 2008. In 2017 it was half that.

More troubling, a statistical analysis showed a spike in the number of calls with volunteer shortages.

A double-digit trend started in 2012 when White Salmon Fire experienced 12 calls with insufficient volunteer response. The figure was 18 out of 101 calls in 2014 and 34 out of 164 in 2015. Then there is this sobering news from White Salmon Chief Bill Hunsaker.

“Within the past three months, the White Salmon Fire Department had one specific incident where no firefighters were available to respond,” noted Hunsaker. “Automatic aid partners from FD3 and Bingen Fire responded, which is why the automatic aid agreement is vital to our area.”

Before White Salmon Fire officially began answering EMS calls in 2015, it experienced a 40% reduction in average volunteer response per call-out.

Bingen Fire and FD3 also have experienced fluctuations in roster size and declines in hands-on participation in the last six years.

Bingen’s volunteer roster has maintained an average of 19.3 firefighters. It had 22 volunteers enrolled at the end of 2017, up three from 2016. The city budgeted costs for 21 firefighters in its 2018 operating budget for a population of 712 residents and a diverse economy and business sector.

Bingen Fire’s call numbers averaged nearly 73 per year, with 437 calls answered between 2012-2017. The high point was 88 calls in 2015.

The brunt of the work, however, fell on a minority of volunteers. In 2012, only seven of 19 members attended 10 or more calls. In 2014, only six of 21 members were able to respond to double-digit call-outs. Last year it was eight of 22.

Bingen Fire Chief Carl Spratt said his department’s volunteer numbers are adequate for current call volumes “with the assistance of mutual aid.” That’s a big caveat.

Fire District No. 3 had a roster of 29 volunteers and three paid administrative staff in 2017, divided between Station 31 in Husum and Station 32 at Cherry Lane, for a territory 50 square miles in size (about the same land area as the city of Tacoma). FD3’s average firefighter age is 37.

District personnel responded to 244 incidents last year. Seventeen, or 7%, were fire calls; the majority (134, or 55%) were rescue and emergency medical services incidents. Most of Bingen’s calls, however, were mutual aid-related.

FD3 stats for Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 2017, indicate only seven members attended at least 16% of all incidents, and only four members attended at least 40% of 72 training drills.

Call volume numbers in the district were all over the board 2012-2017. District personnel went to 212 incidents in 2012 (118 for rescue/EMS. Call volumes were 214 and 218 the following two years. The total shot up to 356 in 2015, then 367 in 2016, with rescue/EMS calls leading the way (209 and 212, or 57.8% and 58.7%, respectively).

Attrition and Turnover

Fire department volunteers, like most everybody else, work at some point during the day. They aren’t always readily available to answer calls. They might be employed in industries that have seasonal busy times. They might have to choose between children who play sports and fire department activities. These are realities volunteer fire departments have faced since their beginnings.

As the statistics reveal, call volumes, roster sizes, and volunteer participation have all varied over time at all three local departments. As far as the area’s top fire officials are concerned, those numbers are all trending in wrong directions at a time when southwest Klickitat County’s population is growing.

“Firefighters have retired faster than we can replace them,” Hun-saker said. “Some firefighters have left because the number of volunteers responding continues to decrease, which puts additional demand on the volunteers who do respond.”

According to FD3 Chief Wesley Long, the average volunteer time of service today in the U.S.A. is less than 5 years. People come and go; they retire due to age after many years of service, they leave the area, or drop out because their expectations aren’t being met, they are “burned out,” or their personal life demands no longer allow them to make such a big commitment.

“The 25- to 30-year volunteers are gone in the U.S.A.,” Long said.

Fire chiefs are constantly trying to recruit new volunteers, with public displays and personal engagements. We’ve seen fire department recruitment banners flying in local parades and informational booths at local festivals. Chiefs have made promotional pitches to local employers and touched bases with the high school in reaching out to a new, younger demographic. Progress is slow.

“Since I have arrived, we have maintained our overall number of firefighters,” Long said. “A few have departed, but new members have been realized. There is ‘attrition’ to consider, and there are a few examples of life changes with people and they can no longer commit to the time necessary to participate actively in calls and training.”

At this writing, FD3 had three individuals enrolled in a Hood River-based firefighter academy; they will graduate April 9.

Maintaining, however, is not a good thing in a dynamic organization like a fire department, whose work isn’t ordered around a set schedule. It’s why chiefs like Long are never satisfied with just “adequate” rosters.

Recruitment and Retention

Volunteer firefighters today are required to train to high standards. It takes a major commitment to attend drills or meetings four times a month. And that doesn’t include call-outs at any time of the day for fires, hazardous material releases, motor vehicle accident, search-and-rescue operations, and the list goes on.

In return, they receive a small stipend for attending meetings, training drills, and incidents, and retirement credits in the Washing-ton State Pension Plan, and their community’s appreciation for their service.

If you ask local fire officials what they are doing about recruitment and retention, they’ll wave off the question.

They’ll tell you to a man that they have used every trick in their bags to recruit new members.

The message, however, is consistently the same: We are experiencing a shortage of volunteers and are looking for able-bodied individuals 18 and older to join a team that is dedicated to serving the citizenry and protecting its property from fire damage. Local departments ask volunteers to commit at least two years of service after completing Firefighter I basic training.

White Salmon Fire requires volunteers to commit at least two hours per week to meetings and/-or drills, for a total of 52 combined hours a year, at the minimum. New recruits also are required to complete Wildland Firefighter II training during the first year of membership. FD3 also has stringent requirements, which may be one reason recruiting is such a challenge.

“I recruit whenever possible, at the store, gas pumps, Facebook, and other means,” Long said. “Typical responses? ‘I don’t have time for that,’ or ‘I could never do that blood-and-guts thing.’ People are not knocking on our doors to get in.”

Hunsaker said most people have little to no emergency response experience when they enter the volunteer firefighter ranks. He said department officers provide a substantial level of training to help volunteers meet or exceed basic firefighter qualifications.

Hunsaker said the two critical issues to be addressed before volunteering are family support (discuss it with them first) and reasonable expectations (the fire service is not all that glamorous and exciting).

“The truth is, we spend the majority of our time training, maintaining equipment, training, cleaning the station, training, preparing for community events, and training,” Hunsaker said. “Without proper training, people are unable to effectively address emergency situations and run equipment.”

The Standards

According to fire service standards, a typical response for non-structural fire calls should be an engine company staffed by four firefighters.

The response to structural fires should be two engine companies because of the manpower needed for initial attack, rapid intervention teams of at least two firefighters to watch for firefighters in distress, and overhaul and salvage.

According to a Firehouse magazine article titled “Overhaul and Salvage: Part 1, Overhaul in the fire service is ‘the checking of a fire scene to determine that no fire remains.’ A close examination ensures that every location where hidden fire could still be burning is searched thoroughly. Salvage is the preservation of the structure and its contents from additional damage from fires, smoke, water and firefighting activities.”

For EMS calls not involving CPR, as another example, the response should be a basic life support vehicle manned by at least two firefighters, with at least one being an EMT.

Said Hunsaker, “Some people think if they volunteer they will be able to be on the end of a hose or driving an engine. They don’t realize there is a lot of training required before they can be tasked with those responsibilities.”

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