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Washington State’s Devastating Decline of Volunteer FireFighters

In 1984, about 19,000 volunteer firefighters staffed stations across the state; today, the numbers have decreased to just around 10,000. For many parts of the state, the loss of volunteer teams could have devastating impacts.

By the time he was 18, Chris LaDue had the definition for his perfect life.

"If you've ever seen the movie 'Lethal Weapon,' you know Martin Riggs lives on the beach with his dog and his truck and a camper," he said. "That was my choice. That was like, 'if I can do that, and work in a drug task force, I'd be stoked.'"

Then, his friends convinced him to join a local fire department in San Clemente, Calif., as a volunteer firefighter. At first, he said he stayed on the job for the adrenaline rush. But then that San Clemente volunteer job led to jobs in Chicago and two other southern California fire departments.

Now, more than 30 years later, 49-year-old LaDue volunteers 12-hour night shifts at the South Bay, Wash., Fire Department. On days when he goes in, he starts mornings at his office job with an HVAC company in Olympia. After work, he's immediately in the car on the way to the department for his 6 p.m. start time.

When 6 a.m. hits, he's back on the road heading for his day job again. By the time he makes it home in the afternoon, he'll have worked about 28 hours straight.

He's seen a lot he's wanted to forget over the years — from late night accidents involving children, to pronouncing his own then-mother-in-law dead. In the small community of Johnson Point, he said he sometimes feels nervous on his way to calls, hoping it isn't someone he knows. But he has plans to stay until he can't do the work anymore.

"This job wasn't something I thought I'd ever do," he said. "When it came down to it, the fire service when I was younger kept me out of trouble. But the real purpose for me was, it's giving back to your community. That's what really kept me coming back."

LaDue shares this sense of purpose with many current and former volunteer firefighters across Washington. But the service is declining quickly throughout the state. About 19,000 volunteer firefighters who staffed stations in 1984 has become about 10,000 today, said T.J. Nedrow, secretary of the Washington State Fire Fighters' Association.

The loss is a problem with immediate consequences for departments charged with serving their communities. The WSFFA, alongside other firefighter organizations and department leaders around the state, are working to identify the factors contributing to the decline, with the hopes of developing targeted solutions.

But the situation is layered, Nedrow said, and it needs to be tackled from several angles.

"We have lost, in part, that community spirit to give back to the community by volunteering. ... It has plagued the fire service for many years now," Nedrow said. "We are looking at solutions to that statewide. "

What People Stand to Lose

Outside Yelm, Bald Hills Fire Department Chief Mark Gregory normally leads about 35 volunteers to serve this rural corner of Thurston County.

The department is not too busy, averaging at about 600 calls a year, he said. But over the last few years, its size has fallen to about 25. The department's staff, which is entirely volunteers other than the chief position and a couple of part-time roles, has felt the loss.

"The folks that remain feel obligated to go on more calls because there's no one else to do it. You don't want the call to be unanswered," he said. "We have mutual aid agreements with our neighbors, but we want to be able to take care of our own."

The department's main station stands about 10 miles from its nearest neighbor, the Southeast Thurston Fire Department, and its fire district is another couple of miles outside of that. The time spent getting to rural areas can make a difference, especially with emergency medical calls.

"One of the benefits of our organization for our local citizenry is that we have people who respond from their homes with equipment," Gregory said. "A neighbor's having chest pain, we may have somebody there right away, because they're home, available to respond to the call. Same with brush fires and things of that nature."

Many volunteer fire services were founded on similar principles. In the mid-1900s, small communities around Washington got together to create departments based on need. Urban departments could not respond with the efficiency that rural neighbors themselves could, said Chief Brian VanCamp of the South Bay Fire Department.

VanCamp has been with the department since 1973, and filled its first paid position as chief. In the last decade, South Bay has transitioned into a combination department — a mix of career and volunteer staff its ranks — but the need is ever-present and evolving, he said.

"One of the biggest changes over the years has been really the focus, not on fire, but on emergency medical service," he said. "Today, from 80 to 85 percent of what we do is EMS."

And although it might seem that those people with access to staffed urban departments can ignore the problems in these rural areas, Steve Wright, executive director of the Washington Fire Chiefs Association (WFC), pointed to broader impacts.

For example, Wright said those using highways around the state have to drive through rural areas to get from place to place. If they get into car crashes or require other emergency help during those times, that help won't come from an established career department. Response will likely depend on how well-equipped that area's small department is to handle that situation.

"There's always going to be a need in the rural components for a quality volunteer fire service," Wright said. "How's that delivered? How's it maintained? And where do they find the people who have this commitment and heart towards providing that service? These are the challenges we're working on."

The Time Problem

Rich Gleckler, a former volunteer firefighter with the North Olympia Fire Department, started on the job in 1974. Back then, he went to three or four hours of training on Monday evenings, and the whole program took less than 60 hours.

As insurance and safety liability have changed over the years, the time commitment has risen drastically, he said. The training is at about 400 hours — not including studying — for firefighting. For those interested in EMS, Gleckler said it's another 400 hours on top of that. That, combined with the 12- or 24-hour shifts many work, becomes an unapproachable idea for many people with other commitments, including family.

At one point in his service, LaDue was working three shifts and teaching at the academy. Fire service members would come to his home for advice or help in the few hours he had off. At some point, he lost control.

"A huge thing is finding balance with your life and your family compared to your job, and being able to turn (your job) off. But it's very hard," he said. "l'll never forget my daughter. She must have been 12, something like that. And she said, 'Dad, it's night and day fire with you.'"

The time problem is one of the most difficult to solve, Wright said. The training has gotten more advanced and more intense to improve safety standards, which he said is understandable reasoning.

The WFC has raised concerns about the additional load, proposing a rural firefighter designation with less intense training. But the reality is that the fire service is a dangerous job, Wright said, and that training is worth the investment for the firefighters and the citizens they help.

"We've worked hard to have standards so people have a reasonable shot of not being injured or hurt," he said. "And yet those very standards place a burden on (the fire service)."

Time commitment also depends on community call volume. For many departments, the demand has become overwhelming for volunteers alone to handle, Wright said.

For example, Wright, the former fire chief at South Kitsap County Fire & Rescue, got about 1,100 calls a month. It's nearly impossible to ask volunteers to respond to that demand, he said. When he started working in the department in 1986, South Kitsap had about 200 volunteers and 12 career people. By the time he left, there were about 20 volunteers and 100 career staff.

"There are some really wonderful volunteer programs across the state, but they have to fit in the community," he said. "The demand has to be at a level that is within reason for somebody to give and a lot of these people give a tremendous amount. But there is a break over point."

A Department Grows

Arnold Baker is the fire chief at Manson Fire in Chelan County, where his recruitment efforts have led him to chair the retention and recruitment committee at WFC.

Outside of his own paid position, his department is staffed entirely with volunteers. Even as departments around the state see their volunteer staff decline, Baker's small department has more than 30 — and it's been growing.

"I'm at an all-time high in volunteers," he said. "I'm participating on this committee to get fire departments' fire chiefs engaged to say, 'Volunteerism isn't dying. I'm just not exploring all my options to get these people engaged and make opportunities for them.'"

The key to Baker's success in Manson is compensation. His community can't afford to hire enough career folks, so he's taken the compensation equivalent to two full-time positions and dispersed it among his volunteers. It comes out to a check between about $7,000 and $12,000.

He's hoping to direct that money toward a deferred compensation program for retirement, and is working with other members of the recruitment and retention committee to navigate the legal barriers to that right now.

A 25-year-old volunteer who earns about $10,000 and puts it into deferred compensation over the course of 25 years could have about $1.6 million at age 65, Baker said.

"You'll live a simple life, but when you'll retire a wealthy person," he said. "The new message that we're trying to create for volunteers is there are financial opportunities."

But generally right now, Wright said most compensation programs for volunteers, if they exist at all, are modest. Some are simply enough to reimburse volunteers for out-of-pocket expenses, so aren't a big enough motivator for most people, he said. For very small rural departments, the funding is just going far enough to provide the equipment, he added.

LaDue gets some compensation at South Bay, which is upped for volunteers who engage in EMS or have technical skills beyond firefighting alone. But he also isn't sure that the motivator will be enough. To him, compensation should not be the motivation in the force.

But Baker's chairing the committee because it has worked. To him, recruitment is essential to his operations.

"What I've done in my community is to say, 'OK, folks, we don't have a plan B. You volunteers, you're the plan A,'" Baker said. "We're dependent on them to show up."

No Single, Easy Fix

The value of compensation is just one point of disagreement among those trying to fill the ranks of volunteer firefighters. Each department comes with its own unique set of circumstances.

At South Bay, Chief VanCamp said his problem is less with recruitment, and more with retention. He invests a significant amount of money in training his volunteers, but they get hired as career staff a few years in. He said he'd be surprised to see a majority of his current volunteers around the department in a few years.

Nedrow is convinced that the decline, in part, stems from a cultural shift in generations. Many types of volunteer-based organizations are short staffed around Olympia, from PTAs to Kiwanis. A "what's in it for me" mindset has affected the service over the years, he said.

To Wright, it's less that people aren't willing, and more that life is more prone to getting complicated faster these days. Many families are running on two-person incomes, he said, consumed with work and childcare obligations. And there are just more things to be interested in these days, he added.

There's also the reality of the position to consider, LaDue said. The fire service is a commitment that extends beyond a classic volunteer experience. Some people go to a training or two and realize it's not for them, he said.

Developing solutions, therefore, means experimenting with various options that might help to ease the different contributing factors. Leaders are drawing from each other nationwide, trying to apply different strategies that have worked.

Things are getting done step by step, Nedrow said. He has led efforts to keep costs low for an annual fire school. He's helped with scholarships from the WSFFA, and developed models that might one day provide health insurance to volunteers. There are pockets of hope, but each day brings new challenges.

"I loved what I was doing (as a volunteer). I loved helping people," Nedrow said. "Near and dear to my heart is being able to work on solutions. I enjoy it and I find ways to add value to other people's lives, their programs and their communities."

A Service Worth Pursuing

For years as fire chief, Baker and his team didn't have a single CPR survivor. Then, he invested in training from King County. For him, seeing survivors walking around his community is his reason for service.

"There's no higher satisfaction than seeing people that were clinically dead returned to their lives, fully intact," he said. "We do things that are off the chart of value. I get the satisfaction that I was part of that."

Nobody is at fault for the many factors that have led to recruitment and retention issues in volunteer fire, Wright said. But everyone stands to lose the benefits of local services around the state.

Almost all of the leaders The Olympian spoke to for this story started off as volunteers, making their way through the ranks of their departments, and in some cases, state positions. Each has committed decades to the force, and all believe volunteers are worth fighting for.

"We're doing all we can to try to maintain (our volunteer staff) as best we can," VanCamp said. "Some departments have just decided they can't do it any longer and then throw in the towel, but we continue to be dependent on having those volunteers. So we really can't, we have to do all that is necessary."

Becoming a volunteer firefighter is a decision that you can't make alone, LaDue said. It involves talking to loved ones and determining if it's the right fit, and it's not an easy job to walk into.

But for those who go through that process and still choose to step through the doors of South Bay Fire, Ladue tells every one of them the same thing.

"Everyone started where you are now," he said. "If this is what you want, don't let anybody ever tell you that you can't do it. You go after it."

(c)2023 The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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