Portage fire chief looks for firefighter recruits

September 28, 2018

The Portage Fire Department is looking for a few good firefighters.

Portage Fire Chief Clayton Simonson said there are 24 firefighters, including two women, on the roster. Two of the members are just starting training and are not yet able to respond to structure or vehicle fires.

That’s a critical low, Simonson said, for a department that’s authorized to have up to 40 firefighters.

Portage is far from alone in struggling with a shortage of volunteers for vital public safety functions. Many communities have challenges recruiting and keeping not only firefighters, but also volunteer emergency medical responders.

Simonson said he has noticed some key factors that make it particularly challenging to recruit and keep paid on-call firefighters:

Relatively few of the people who live in Portage also work in Portage during the day. In Columbia County, about two-thirds of the workforce works outside of the county.People who are available to be on call, and who meet the physical requirements to be an active firefighter, often do not want to be available to answer calls, which may come at inconvenient hours or in rapid succession.Some of the recent recruits have moved out of Portage before completing their training.

Council member Dennis Nachreiner asked whether people who might not be qualified to fight fires — by age, or by inability to meet the physical and training requirements — could still help the fire department in other ways.

“Granted, this is a stressful job,” Nachreiner said. “But are there other things that can be done to reduce the stress on the fire department?”

Simonson said he has considered inviting some of the retired paid on-call firefighters to help drive the tender truck to fire scenes where water needs to be brought in. That likely would require some retraining, and questions of liability would have to be addressed.

Simonson said Robert Wood, a 42-year veteran of the department who no longer fights fires, often brings food, water, energy drinks, extra hoses and whatever firefighters might need at a scene.

Paid on-call firefighters must be at least 18 years old, have a valid Wisconsin driver’s license and be available for monthly meetings and training. Applications are available on the city’s website at portagewi.gov.

Candidates are interviewed, and must pass a three-hour physical fitness test and a drug test.

Recruits are on probation for a year, and required to undergo 30 hours of in-house training and state entry-level fire training. The expenses are paid for by the city, Simonson said.

Recruits also get two sets of turnout gear — the safety clothing required at a fire scene — because after a fire, the gear needs to be cleaned and dried before being used again.

Simonson said he’ll continue to get the word out to potential recruits, including at the department’s annual Fire Prevention Week open house from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 13.

“I’m sure there are people out there who want to do this,” Simonson said.

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