Unit losing volunteer firefighters like a sieve
Would you put in 12-hour shifts with the expectation to bolt to an emergency at any hour of the day for an average pay of 83 cents an hour? For the opportunity to work for so small a salary, would you take on another job or two to make ends meet? Would you be OK with spending your limited free time taking on multiple hours of mandatory training?
While the job requirements sound severe, it’s just another day in the life of a volunteer firefighter. But as the nearly nonexistent pay, long hours and rigorous training make it harder to find men and women willing to sign up for duty, the issue is becoming a burning one for the Palisade Fire Department.
The agency staffs 2½ full-time, paid positions, so it relies heavily on its ranks of volunteers. But the number of those volunteers has been cut nearly in half, from 45 in April to 24 now.
In the past eight years, the fire department has lost 119 volunteers, with about half leaving for full-time, paid positions at other agencies. The department works on an annual operating budget of $413,000, which is not enough to offer salaries to firefighters, Palisade Fire Chief Richard Rupp said. Instead, firefighters tend to use volunteer-staffed fire stations as a sort of training ground.
Those hurdles, coupled with increasing call loads, has the department wondering how it will retain staff. The majority of Palisade’s firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians, and most emergency calls are medical in nature, rather than fire-related.
“It would really help if we had a better incentive to (give firefighters to) live on,” Rupp said. “A lot of our firefighters put in time here and have other jobs. It takes two people now to raise enough money for a family.”
Rupp and Emergency Medical Services Chief Joe White said the department supports a study completed years ago that concluded consolidation of the Grand Valley’s fire departments would create a number of efficiencies. But making that kind of switch is a long-term solution, requiring cooperation among all agencies, rounds of talks and a vote of the people, Rupp said.
The department also is crafting automatic mutual aid agreements with other departments that more clearly define boundaries for answering calls. That might limit the areas in which Palisade firefighters answer calls.
“We’re looking at a lot of different ideas to make our money go farther and give the best service,” White said.
The department’s busiest year was in 2015, when firefighters answered nearly 900 calls for service. This year’s call load stood at roughly 650 at the end of last week, and it’s projected to exceed 2015 numbers by the end of this year, White said.
Times have changed from the days of all-volunteer fire departments, Rupp said. Decades ago, it was common for men working in town to take time from day jobs to put out fires. Call loads were lower, Rupp said, and employers tended to be understanding.
Today’s firefighters often are simultaneously trained as EMTs and must obtain a bevy of other certifications, like hazardous materials, various types of rescue training, terrorist training and wildland fire training, to name just few, Rupp said. Putting in the training and long shifts, especially considering the meager pay, is a lot to ask of someone, Rupp said.
Palisade formerly paid for firefighters to earn their EMT basic certification, but now volunteers are expected to shoulder that $4,000 to $6,000 cost. Firefighting training is offered in-house.
The department offers one financial incentive, but it requires lengthy commitments. Firefighters can receive a pension of $150 a month for 10 years of volunteer service after reaching age 50, or $300 a month for 20 years of service.
Despite the workload, Matt Childs is one of those firefighters who is in it for the long haul.
The 29-year-old started at the Palisade Fire Department as a cadet at the age of 16.
To help him withstand the rigors of the job, his parents take care of his dog, and he has no grass to maintain.
“I always knew I enjoyed helping people,” Childs said. “I really enjoy the job. Every day is different.”
Childs said the most rewarding part is knowing he’s saved a life, like bringing someone back to life who is unconscious or working on a cardiac arrest patient “who walks out of the hospital.”
The single father of two children also works on an ambulance crew in Rifle.
Some shifts are 48 hours, and between his jobs Childs only enjoys three days off a month.
On a national scale, open, paid positions for firefighters are extremely competitive, which keeps firefighters in volunteer roles, he said.
Palisade’s volunteer firefighters are just as qualified as paid firefighters anywhere, they just aren’t reimbursed, several firefighters at Palisade’s fire station said. “You don’t do this for the money,” Childs said. “It’s a passion endeavor.”