Volunteer firefighters a special, yet dying breed
For Stephanie Lynch, being a volunteer firefighter is a way of life. She’s trained, fought fires and helped rescue victims at accident scenes. It can take her away from home and her family at all hours of the day and night, but it’s something she can’t give up.
“I fell in love with it 10 years ago, and I’ve continued with it ever since,” the former South Beloit and now Rockton volunteer firefighter said.
Volunteer firefighters make up about 72 percent of the nation’s shrinking firefighting force, said Kimberly Ettinger of the National Volunteer Fire Council. Yet volunteer firefighters are increasingly hard to find as departments across the Rock River Valley — and the country — struggle to find new recruits.
One of the reasons is the increasingly demanding requirements to join a volunteer department. Today, recruits must spend hundreds of hours in the classroom and in field-training exercises to achieve the state’s recommended firefighter qualification, something that once was reserved mostly for full-time, paid firefighters. Many are cross trained in medical, fire, rescue and special skills, like diving.
Volunteer numbers falling
Ettinger says during the past two decades, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped by 8 percent nationwide. That’s a big deal, she said, when you consider there are just over 1 million firefighters in America, and, of those, 823,650 are volunteers.
“There’s been a decline in retention because of the long hours and the ongoing requirements and training needed,” she said. “Recruiting has become a challenge for departments nationwide. There’s a number of factors, (including) an increased time commitment and increased training standards since 9/11.”
Rockton Fire Chief Ron Weavel said his department, which features no full-time paid posts, is still managing to get the job done. But he sees problems down the road as the community continues to grow and more fire protection is needed to cover a larger area with more homes and businesses.
Kevin Wiwczaroski, secretary/treasurer for the Illinois Firefighters Association, said the story is the same in most small Illinois communities where volunteer fire departments are the norm.
“It used to be that 90 percent of your volunteers lived in town or nearby,” said Wiwczaroski, a 28-year volunteer firefighter and member of the Glen Carbon Fire Protection District in southwestern Illinois. “It’s not community-based anymore. here’s been a big push the last several years for mutual aid agreements to supplement local manpower.”
Mutual aid agreements allow fire departments in communities that border each other or are close by to respond to emergencies in each other’s jurisdictions.
A local success
Harlem-Roscoe Fire Department Chief Oscar Presley said he has had little or no trouble keeping his growing department staffed. At last count, about 100 people staff his three departments located in Roscoe, South Beloit and Machesney Park,
“I’ve never had a problem with manpower,” said Presley, who has been chief for 25 years. “I believe men want to join a department they can be proud of and that they can trust and depend on those they’ll be working with.”
Presley said he has worked hard to provide that environment by always looking ahead and trying to plan for future resources.
“We put aside money several years ago for a fourth station we’ll need in the (Interstate) 90 area,” Presley said. “We have a training facility that other departments in the area use. If you look into the future, you’ll be able to handle these things as they come up and people will see that and want to come to work for your department.”
Harlem-Roscoe has a volunteer firefighting class starting in January that already has 15 applicants. Last time, 27 people took the course and 15 graduated. Graduates typically take about 115 hours of training then take additional training over the next few months before they take their Firefighter II testing.
Presley has about 78 people on staff who are firefighters, some of whom are cross-trained in medical and other skills. Other personnel are dispatchers, investigators, chaplains, secretaries and fill other roles.
“Most of them stay with us (after training),” said Presley. “You always lose one or two the first year who thought it was too demanding or we were asking too much of them.”
Family can help
Not all departments have had the kind of success Harlem-Roscoe has had. State and national officials say a community’s demographics also play a role in how easily it fills its volunteer firefighting rosters.
Capt. Rod Waltrip of the Stillman Fire Protection District said his department is in the middle of a recruiting drive. Firefighters are distributing fliers, and the district has placed ads in newspapers to draw new blood. He believes it’s often best if the whole family is onboard with the decision to be a volunteer firefighter.
Waltrip’s wife, Rebecca, is a member of the department’s Women’s Auxiliary. Among other things, she helps provide drinks and food at fire scenes.
“You’re not just putting out fires anymore,” said Waltrip. “There is so much more to firefighting today.”
Weekly training sessions — some lasting between three and four hours — classroom instruction, being on-call and responding to emergencies are just some of the demands of the job.
A way of life
Most volunteer firefighters work other jobs because the money they make being per call is usually not enough to support a family. Some chiefs said their rate is at or above minimum wage while others said volunteers with medical training and other knowledge and skills can make up to $15 an hour.
For Lynch, the Rockton volunteer firefighter and EMT who also is an emergency room nurse, long hours of holding down two jobs may serve as a stepping point to a lifelong dream of one day working as a nurse on a helicopter. She believes the more she knows about all aspects of firefighting, lifesaving and nursing, the better her chances are of one day working as a flight nurse.
On Sept. 10, Lynch was among a group of eight people taking classes at Rockton’s Fire Department. Every Monday night, they spend several hours training and learning.
On this night, Lt. Rob Ebany was giving a course in rescue diving techniques. He demonstrated complex rope rescue pointers everyone must know to help them save lives. One day, the volunteers will be tested on the info they have learned.
Ebany broke out in a sweat as he and a helper removed about 150 pounds of gear and weights he would need to conduct his underwater mission.
“I need all the experience I can get because I really want to be a flight nurse,” Lynch said. “My husband is a firefighter, too, so he kind of understands. It is a challenge, but you have to do a lot of training to be prepared for all the different scenarios we could face.”
At Stillman, Waltrip said while being a volunteer firefighter isn’t for everyone, anyone interested should at least check it out.
“I encourage anybody that wants to be on a fire department to go ahead and do it,” he said. “It takes a special breed, but once you do it, it gets in your blood.”
Staff writer Rob Baxter can be reached at 815-987-1369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.