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Volunteer firefighters are vital for rural areas, but their numbers are on the decline

September 23, 2018

Rural communities like those scattered across the Flathead have relied for decades on volunteer firefighters and paramedics, who train for hundreds of hours and risk their lives for others.

In recent years, however, their numbers have been dropping.

“People come here with the expectation that when you call 911, somebody’s going to come,” said Gary Mahugh, fire chief of the Creston Fire Department for almost 40 years.

The Creston Fire district, which reaches a bedroom community set at least 15 minutes from the two closest towns, serves 8,000 people who expect trained professionals and a timely response to emergencies.

“In Creston, if we did not have volunteer firefighters, we would not have a fire department,” Mahugh said. “Or we would not have any kind of response in any kind of a timely fashion.”

Back in 1974 when he first joined the department as a firefighter, Mahugh said there was never a shortage of volunteers “waiting in the wings,” ready to respond when called.

“People were really community-minded back in those days, where everybody helped their neighbor, everybody knew their neighbor and it was just the right thing to do,” he said.

Beginning in the late ’90s, however, Mahugh said he’s noticed a decline in the number of community members stepping up to volunteer with their local departments.

He attributed the decline in numbers to a societal shift in the community’s priorities.

“We have found that a good share of employers do not make that offer to their employees that they can leave during the day for fire calls or medical calls,” he said. “Every fire department in Flathead County is shorthanded in the daytime.”

Most families today depend on two incomes in order to make ends meet, meaning people are working more hours and struggling to find a balance between home, work and recreation, Mahugh said.

The increasingly lower commitment levels from some volunteers means the department not only has fewer firefighters responding to each incident, but inconsistency over which volunteers, what level of training or how quick of a response to expect.

“The biggest challenge [is]...if we have a fire call right now, I have virtually no idea who will be there,” Mahugh said. “If I was at a paid fire department that has paid staff in the station, I’m going to know who’s there that day. I don’t know that today.”

Of the 30 members on Mahugh’s department, around 20 consistently respond to calls, which he said is not uncommon for volunteer departments and can sometimes lead to burnout.

Craig Williams, Evergreen Fire Chief and Chairman of the Flathead County Fire Chiefs Association, said he’s also seen an uptick in turnover in the 30 years he’s been working in fire.

Back when he joined Evergreen Fire in 1986, Williams said he often worked alongside firefighters who’d been with the department 10 years or more.

These days, he said, departments are lucky to find people willing to commit two or three years.

The Evergreen department oversees a district of around 8,500 residents, with an ambulance district of an additional 5,000-6,000 people, according to Williams.

Those numbers rise each year, as does an ever increasing call volume, as more and more people move into the rural areas of the Flathead Valley.

Williams said his department projects a total of around 3,000 calls this year, medical and fire combined.

The Smith Valley Fire Department, which serves 69 square miles west of Kalispell, jumped from just over 400 calls in 2016 to 630 calls in 2017, according to Fire Chief Amy Beick.

Based on current call volumes, Beick said an ideal number of volunteers needed to keep her department running smoothly, in addition to the five paid on-call personnel and three EMTs, sits between 30 and 40. She has 11.

With such a large district area, she believed many potential volunteers are intimidated by a hobby that requires long commutes, high fuel and mileage expenses and several hours of labor with no compensation.

Due to the increase in call volume and scarcity of available volunteers, both Smith Valley and Evergreen fire departments, along with others in the valley, have started compensating some firefighters and medics in recent years, contributing to their need for additional funding.

Evergreen began staffing its station with two responders around the clock when the department added its 24/7 ambulance service in 2007.

When those two are out on calls, Williams said it’s the volunteers who act as the backbone of the department.

In April of this year, the department requested a levy of 70.63 mills to cover increases in staffing and equipment costs.

The levy failed, giving the department’s board until June of 2019 to come up with an alternative funding solution before the current levy expires.

Though the Bigfork Department and QRU passed a mill levy in May, adding 200,000 a year makes volunteers critical to its continued operations.

“Realistically... if we bought nothing, did not pay electric bills, we operate out of four stations, we have enough money to pay four people wages. That’s our entire district budget,” Mahugh said. “If we did that we might have four people employed but we would not have anything else.”

Still, Mahugh said he believes that volunteer departments can continue to thrive with active recruitment and public education as to what the position involves.

“I truly believe that there are a lot of people that would fully enjoy being a volunteer firefighter or emergency medical provider if they truly understood what it was about and if they were asked to do it.”

For more information or to volunteer with a local department, contact Creston Fire Department at 406-250-7396, Evergreen Fire Rescue at 406-752-4636, Smith Valley Fire Department at 406-752-3548 or contact a volunteer fire department in your district.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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