By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT, McLEOD, MEEKER COUNTIES, MN “We need to look at doing things differently,” commented Delano Fire Chief Bob Van Lith, who has 35 years of firefighting experience. “The demand and the service have changed.”
In 1980, US firefighters responded to nearly 3 million fires, and just over 5 million calls for medical aid, according to the National Fire Protection Agency.
In 2013, the number of fire calls dropped to 1.2 million, while medical-related calls quadrupled to more than 21 million.
Van Lith’s department responded to more than 500 calls last year. This means that if all firefighters responded to every call, they’d average about two calls per weekday. Fortunately, most are small, medical-related calls, and only require a few members.
“For about 80 percent of the calls, I need two or three people,” Van Lith said. “Another 15 to 18 percent of the time, I need maybe six to eight people.”
In situations where a large number of firefighters is required, other cities often step in to help.
Mutual aid was somewhat frowned upon years ago, but now, Van Lith said it’s standard protocol.
Lester Prairie Fire Chief Jim Hoof noted, “During the day, we rely heavily on mutual aid from other departments on anything other than a more routine medical call.”
For some departments, finding people to respond can be a challenge at times.
“The biggest trouble we have are daytime calls and weekends during the daytime,” Dassel Fire Chief David Johnson noted.
To be a firefighter in Dassel, a person must live within six minutes of the fire station.
In Waverly, applicants must be a resident of the fire coverage area.
“We have a tough time finding enough people to respond on weekdays, during the 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. hours, because most of the members work out of town,” Waverly Fire Chief Jason Karels noted. “We are trying to figure out how to be able utilize the people who work in town but do not live in town who might be willing to go on daytime calls.”
Waverly’s fire department currently has 24 members.
“Ideally, it would be best to have 30 to 35 members,” Karels said. “When I joined in 1996, there was a full roster at 30, but we have been as low as 13.
In Lester Prairie, firefighters need to live within three miles of the fire station.
“We do allow firefighters from other departments to become auxiliary members, as long as they are trained to [National Fire Protection Association] NFPA 1001 standards, and are in good standing with their own department,” Hoof noted.
Lester Prairie’s fire department currently has two of these auxiliary members, as well as 28 regular members. A full roster is 30.
The Dassel Fire Department maximum is also 30, and they currently have 25.
“It has been probably eight to 10 years since we have had a full roster,” Johnson said.
In Delano, Van Lith said numbers aren’t a problem.
“We ran 532 calls last year with a staff of 20, just fine,” he noted. “We are now at 24, but can have 28. Do we need them?”
He explained that he could run the department with as few as 15 volunteers, if it were organized differently. Currently, some members respond to a large number of calls, while others do not respond as often. Van Lith said the more dedicated members tend to get burned out with this system.
He is researching the possibility of having a schedule in which certain volunteers must respond at certain times. Those not on the list could respond as they are available.
“Instead of being on call 24/7, you’re on call for a week,” Van Lith said. “We need to explore different avenues. The old way was to just put a bunch of guys on, and we need to get out of that mindset.”
Even though area firefighters are volunteers, it’s not free to have them on staff.
“Today, it’s very expensive to have a firefighter,” Van Lith said, explaining that it costs about $6,000 to hire a new firefighter, including training expenses, equipment, and gear.
When firefighters leave, departments pay for replacements to be trained.
Fire departments have different incentives to retain members for an extended period of time.
In Dassel, for example, firefighters receive a pension based on years served.
In Waverly, there is a retirement fund for members who stay on 10 years or more; and Lester Prairie firefighters receive a lump sum payment when they retire, based on years of service.
According to FireRecruit.com, 75 percent of firefighters in the US are between the ages of 20 and 49.
About 16 percent are between the ages of 50 and 59. Six percent are over age 60, and 3 percent are younger than age 20.
“I think there are a lot of cities with firefighters on the verge of retirement, and [they’re] having difficulty finding replacements,” noted Cokato City Administrator Annita M. Smythe.
In Waverly, the five current longest-serving members are Ed Sherman (26 years), Roger Karels (24 years), Doug Ault (21 years), Jason Karels (19 years), and John Woitalla (18 years).
“We have about four who are planning to retire within the next few years,” Karels said.
Dassel’s two most experienced members are Dale Grochow (31 years) and Kurt Mortenson (25 years). Brian Gillman, Kevin Carlen, and Keith Day have all been serving for 20 years.
Lester Prairie also has several long-serving members. Hoof is at the top, with 37 years. Others with at least two decades include Dave Horsman (27 years), Wade Schultz (25 years), Dave Dressler (24 years), Scott Christenson (23 years), Fred Pawelk (23 years), and Paul Christenson (22 years).
It takes time
Last year, the Lester Prairie department spent 1,743 hours on calls. Hoof said that while the number of calls are increasing, fewer people seem interested in making a commitment to volunteer.
“Young families are involved in more sports and other activities,” he said. “Today’s job market and economy has people moving more often, keeping some from wanting to commit. Also, longer commutes to and from work have people unwilling to spend extra time away from family.”
“It is a lot of time commitment,” Johnson noted, explaining that in Dassel, his department spends 15 to 20 hours per month on calls, plus about six hours on meetings and trainings.
“There is quite a bit of training for applicants in the first two years, because they have to take state- and federally-required firefighter and first responder courses,” Karels said. “After that, we have one meeting a month and one mandatory training per month, with an occasional optional training.”
“It’s not ‘come and help when you feel like it,’” Van Lith said. “When people call 911, they expect professionalism, they expect service, and they expect it right now.”
Although the time commitment is significant, area fire chiefs say the rewards are worth the effort.
“We are the best-trained resource in the time of crisis in people’s lives,” Hoof said. “I told our members that last year, no matter the outcome, 154 times we were able to make someone’s life a little better when they were having one of the worst days of their life.”
For Hoof, every call is a learning experience.
“Through the years, I have had the chance to meet a lot of great people and am able to call a lot of them friends,” he said.
“Some of the biggest rewards of being a firefighter, for me, are when the person that you helped at a fire or medical call comes up to you on the street and says thank you for being there in their time of need,” Karels said.
Departments seek volunteers in numerous ways.
“We try to attract new firefighters by being visible and involved in many of the community events in our town,” Karels said.
In Dassel, Johnson said they place standard want ads and put up posters, and current members ask people who may be interested.
“For Lester Prairie, I think we may be looking at pay-per-call compensation in the near future in order to retain the younger volunteers,” Hoof said. “Unsure if that will help or not, but it’s a place to start.”
Hoof said he also tries to maintain a harmonious environment.
“If the department has a strong bond, it helps attract new people,” he explained.