Friday, August 15, 2008

Fire departments seek volunteers

Looking for more than a few good men and women as training approaches

Express Staff Writer

Fire departments throughout the Wood river Valley will begin their Firefighters Essentials course next week. A number of the departments are looking for volunteers to help fully staff the different forces. Photo by Mountain Express

It's no secret that fire departments in the Wood River Valley depend on their volunteer corps. Volunteers make up anywhere from 55 to 100 percent of the force for Wood River Fire & Rescue and the departments of Hailey, Bellevue, Ketchum and Sun Valley.

"We're all primarily staffed by volunteers who are supported by the full-time members," Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman said.

The departments are hoping to garner more interest from potential volunteers in anticipation of the Firefighters Essentials course, which begins Aug. 21 at Wood River Station 3, on state Highway 75 just south of Bellevue.

This course lasts approximately two and a half months, with four-hour classes on Thursday evenings and several weekend classes for more prolonged exercises, such as practice with car fires and search and rescue.

All the departments in the valley use the course, after which the volunteers go back to their departments for a one-year probationary period.

"There's really no other volunteer opportunity that combines the ability to do something special for the community with an adrenaline rush—it can be pretty addictive," Hailey Assistant Fire Chief Carl Hjelm said. "No one's doing it for the money."

There is, however, some money in it, as volunteers are paid for the emergency calls they go on at an average wage that Lassman estimates at $8 to $10 per hour, depending on department and level of training.

While the Ketchum Fire Department is in the fortunate situation of being fully staffed, the other departments are feeling the squeeze, with staff numbers dipping below desired levels.

"Volunteer numbers are becoming a greater concern every year," said Lassman, who would like 14 more volunteers to add to the 26 already in his department.

Though the departments have mutual aid agreements to help one another on fires, the number of volunteers is critical, since at least 14 firefighters are required on a fire of structures up to 3,600 square feet. With the national average for volunteer response to a call at one-third, it's not surprising that Hjelm is looking to augment his 22-volunteer force. He's hoping for eight new volunteers this year to fully staff the Hailey department.

Both Lassman and Hjelm said the economic downturn has been felt in their departments, as it's becoming more difficult for volunteers to take time away from their jobs. Employers are also less willing to allow time off, but Hjelm noted that if the department is forced to add more full-time members, taxes will need to be raised to pay for that.

Retention of firefighters can be difficult as well, Hjelm said, since his volunteers are required to complete at least 30 hours of training and go on approximately 50 calls per year.

"It's a significant time commitment," said Hjelm, "We need our volunteers to be professional, not just our full-time staff. When they step off an engine or ambulance, whoever called 911 looks at the firefighters or EMTs equally and expects them to perform equally."

So far, five volunteers for Hailey and four for Wood River have signed up for the course.

While anyone interested should apply to a department before the course starts, Lassman said that people showing up at the first class may be considered if they can demonstrate a firm commitment.

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