HELENA — The 2021 fire season got off to an early start all across the state, and no matter how bad it got, it could have gotten a lot worse if not for volunteer firefighters.
These men and women that many of us take for granted are becoming harder to find, and that’s a problem for everyone.
A 2019 report by the National Volunteer Fire Council found the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States fell by 132,250 between 2015 and 2017. Nearly two-thirds of those were from departments that protect communities with 2,500 or fewer people.
A report to Montana's 2019 Legislative Session noted there were an estimated 8,000 volunteer firefighters in Montana across 199 rural fire districts, 35 volunteer companies and 94 volunteer departments.
“It’s just a struggle to get people… it’s complacency, that kind of thing. It’s somebody else’s job and somebody will do it. Well we're running out of people to do it,” said Lewis & Clark County Volunteer Department chief Wally Jester.
Jester thinks the issue of finding volunteers points to a problem that’s out of most of our hands.
“When I was a kid Dad worked, Mom stayed home. When I got married, we both had to have jobs to keep tennis shoes on the kids and in the programs. And in today’s world, I think people, they got all these homes and they’re so expensive, the cars are so expensive, they have to work two jobs and sometimes extra jobs just to make ends meet," said Jester. "And they just don’t have the time to stick it out."
Not enough time or money is a problem all of us face. But in this case, that problem is trickling down to all our safety with this year’s fire season starting earlier and people needing first responders all year long.
“I think some people have tried the deal and they just figure out how much time is expected to do it," added Jester. "I mean, West Valley, we’re on target to run close to 900 calls as a fire department, volunteer fire department. It’s a job to manage it. We have to run duty officers, put out sign-up sheets at our business meeting to guarantee that we get two to three people at least to run a medical call, and that doesn’t mean that you don’t go, it just guarantees that we have people coming for every day, every night. It’s been a tough thing to manage, but we’re still doing it and we’re blessed with some really great people.”
Blessed to say the least. Even though the numbers aren’t as robust as the fire chiefs would like, the people that work alongside the volunteers know how important every one of them is.
“I don’t know what we’d do without them," Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Helena Unit Fire management officer Chris Spliethof told MTN. "They are a large portion of our workforce and a lot of them come on to teams, they do different things. Some seek higher qualifications, go out of state, some just stick around locally. They are great folks to have around and very, very much needed.”
As of right now, there is no money in being a volunteer firefighter. Yet if you ask Jester, or any of the men and women who work to keep us safe, there is a reason greater than money to be on call.
“When you go on a call and you’re part of a crew that cuts apart a car and saves their lives or stops that wildland fire when it's coming rolling up to their house and you save their home, you can go to bed that night thinking, 'Wow, what a difference we made today,'" said Jester. "There’s your paycheck.”