With several pails of diesel fuel at his side, veteran Hayden, Colo., firefighter Wayne DeLuca was preparing to show this year’s class of recruits how to fight fire.
Inside the training facility just south of Hayden, DeLuca poured fuel on a small fire and the smoke above his head ignited, catching his helmet’s badge on fire.
“That happens sometimes,” he said.
As the West Routt Fire Protection District seeks more funding from taxpayers, departments across the country struggle to fill their ranks. Local officials say that not only do low staffing levels put their firefighters at risk, they also increase response times, putting lives and property at risk.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and this trainee was getting a lot of one-on-one attention because he is the only recruit going through the department’s training program.
“Volunteerism just isn’t what it used to be,” said Dal Leck, one of two full-time paid firefighters with the West Routt Fire Protection District.
In November, voters in the district will be asked to increase the mill levy by 1.5 mills. That proposal would represent about a 50 percent increase.
In 2012, the owner of a $200,000 home paid $49.24 in taxes to the fire district. Under the proposed tax increase, the same homeowner would pay $73.12. The proposed tax increase would raise an additional $175,000 annually. In 2012, taxes generated $436,771 in revenue for the district.
Local officials increasingly are growing concerned. They said local staffing levels not only put their firefighters at risk, they also increase response times, putting lives and property at risk.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased 18 percent since 1984. At the same time, call volume increased by 153 percent between 1986 and 2011. With volunteers comprising 69 percent of firefighters in the country, they create an estimated $140.7 billion in savings each year.
There are many reasons cited for the drop in volunteer numbers, and the solutions to fix this growing problem are not easy.
In West Routt, staffing levels are the lowest they have been in recent history, and in Oak Creek, the minimum requirements are not being met. Within the Steamboat Springs Fire Protection District, eight firefighters are on call 24/7 to help guarantee a timely response, but that kind of service comes at a cost. For 2014, $2.5 million is being proposed in the Steamboat budget for 32 full-time fire department employees, the Craig Daily Press reported.
West Routt Fire Chief Bryan Rickman pointed to an incident in 2008 that he said illustrates the challenges departments face when they rely on firefighters who have other commitments and full-time jobs.
When 15-year-old Robert “Bobby” Donelson had a heart attack on the high school football field, Rickman and Leck were bringing a patient to the hospital in Steamboat 30 miles away.
“It took 14 minutes to put together an ambulance crew to go to that call,” Rickman said. “The community was not happy with that response time.”
Rickman said a faster response would not have saved Bobby’s life but said there are numerous examples of rapid response times saving lives.
Most of those participating in the training are not getting paid, and they are spending time away from their families and other commitments.
The time required to not only complete the initial training but also to keep those certifications active can be a big deterrent to anyone wanting to be a non-career firefighter. Being available to respond to calls also can be a challenge.
Rickman said it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to let their firefighting employees leave work to go on calls.
In Hayden, getting firefighters to respond to calls is more difficult because most people work outside town during the day.
West Routt firefighters are paid. Those going on fire and ambulance calls get $40 per call. Those working a wildland fire make $17.50 per hour.
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