Volunteer firefighters find niche as community servants
A fire does not care who’s fighting it. It’s going to burn regardless. So, volunteer firefighter, paid firefighter — the important thing is fighting the fire.
And it’s a similar sentiment among victims, those who had to flee the fire, those experiencing a medical emergency, those who simply need help.
“As long as we’re there, they don’t care who we are, volunteer or paid,” said Palisade Fire Chief Richard Rupp. “They just see someone who’s there to help them.”
In fact, that’s why many volunteer firefighters say they volunteered in the first place: to help people in their community.
However, because it’s not like other volunteerism — it can require more than 20 hours per week, ongoing training and physical fitness — fire departments are struggling with a perennial need to recruit and retain volunteers.
“When people think of volunteering somewhere else, it’s a few hours here and there and it’s not an arduous physical task,” said Chris Rowland, operations chief of the Clifton Fire Protection District. “When you volunteer as a firefighter, you have to train to a very high level, and it’s a big time commitment.”
Lower Valley Fire District Chief Frank Cavaliere said volunteers are required to maintain the same standards of training, preparation and readiness as paid firefighters, “but the paid firefighters get their training while they’re on duty, not on their free time.”
Of the 11 fire departments that cover Mesa County, 10 include volunteers. Several — Central Orchard Mesa, East Orchard Mesa, Lands End, De Beque and Glade Park — are 100 percent volunteer, though East Orchard Mesa and Glade Park do not transport patients in medical emergencies. The Gateway-Unaweep Volunteer Fire Department chief position counts as volunteer, though it doubles as a paid part of the Gateway Canyons Resort security team, said Mike Hill, Mesa County emergency medical services system coordinator.
Regardless of whether a department is totally volunteer or includes some paid positions, the need for good volunteers never goes away, said Chief Dave Gitchell of the Central Orchard Mesa Volunteer Fire Department.
Because of the volunteer position’s requirements, the average that volunteers stay with the department is five years, Gitchell said, “but then you also have volunteers who stay on 20 years or more.”
Most departments offer incentives to their volunteers — becoming vested at 10 years and eligible for some retirement pay at 20, mileage payment if they respond in their personal vehicles, equipment, training and others.
“But it’s just something you do because you love it,” said East Orchard Mesa volunteer Brad Green, 60, a handyman who always carries a pager on his belt, as do the department’s other volunteers. “The people who volunteer as firefighters are the ones who’d stop and help at an accident, regardless.”
East Orchard Mesa has a very low call volume, but some departments staffed at least partially by volunteers can respond to thousands, the majority of which are medical calls. Lower Valley runs between 1,600 and 1,700 calls per year, Cavaliere said. So far this year, Clifton has run 2,700, Rowland said.
Clifton has 14 paid line staff — those trained to respond to emergencies — and 20 volunteers. The Clifton Fire Protection District bylaws call for 35 volunteers, Rowland said, “so we’re down 15. We’ll start recruiting again in September and get the fire academy going soon after.” Clifton’s volunteers are organized into five crews that are on call every 5th day for the entire 24 hours.
Because of that time commitment, Rowland said, the department began the Clifton Volunteer Fire Academy three years ago. The academy offers intensive orientation into the department and gives potential volunteers an extensive sense of what volunteering requires. If they’re still interested, they go through six months of training and a six-month probation, then are evaluated on their knowledge and readiness, Rowland said.
Most departments require their volunteers to earn the basic emergency medical technician certification as well as hazardous materials awareness, and many volunteers work toward or earn the Colorado Division of Fire Safety Firefighter 1 certification. Volunteers also train extensively to drive or operate the emergency response equipment.
And all that takes time.
“Your family has to be completely on board if you volunteer as a firefighter,” Rupp said. “You can get called out in the middle of the night, you can be gone for hours. If you don’t have total family support, I don’t think you could do it.”
He said the nature of the task also can take an emotional toll, but firefighters are a family whose members support each other, and chiefs are trained to be aware of volunteers’ needs.
Otherwise, “it’s just fun,” Central Orchard Mesa volunteer Kim Gitchell said. “It’s exciting.”
“It might sound bad to say, but it’s a rush,” Palisade volunteer Luke Cahalan said.
While most volunteers will admit to the thrill of what they do, all will cite their main motivation as a desire to help their community and its members.
“When you’ve responded to an emergency and you know you’ve helped someone and made the situation better,” said East Orchard Mesa volunteer Eddie Vial, 19, “That’s pretty great.”