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In rural towns, the fire department provides more than just public safety. Fire departments are often social centers for small town get-togethers. But over the past few years, there's been a dramatic drop in the number of volunteer fire fighters. Many departments have closed their doors and consolidated with neighboring cities. This change may just be a sign of the times, but firefighters agree it surely represents an increased risk for rural fire disasters.
SMALLTOWN FIRES WERE ONCE FOUGHT with ladders, buckets and rain barrels. When the church bells tolled, everyone rushed to help. Today, few people who live in small towns work there. Not only are there fewer people to serve volunteer fire departments, but those who respond are dealing with complex fire hazards: new synthetic chemicals and plastics in buildings that pose serious health risks. Volunteers need extensive training; So much that volunteer fire departments across the state are struggling to find new recruits.
James Heim is with the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association.
Heim: The rules and requirements today of the firefighter are such that training is a large issue. And so as a result, the time commitment is what the problem is right now and that is going to at some point ... at some point down the road, I envision, the possibility of somebody having a fire and nobody comes.There are roughly 20,000 firefighters in Minnesota. About 18,000 of those are volunteers. Many departments expect a large number to retire within the next few years. Heim says that may mean fewer volunteer fire departments and longer waits for service.
Heim: What you're going to be looking at is a neighboring city coming in to provide fire protection where you might have a response time of twenty minutes to a half hour, which is really getting out there pretty well. You're going to keep the fire from getting into the trees and that's about the best you'll do with that sort of response time.Some fire departments have already been forced to close their doors and merge with departments in neighboring cities. In areas of southwest Minnesota, some departments now cover a 400-square-mile area, upping the response time to 20 minutes. Woody Walters is the Minnesota Director of the National Volunteer Fire Council. He's also been a volunteer firefighter in North Branch for more than 20 years. Walters says many departments have waited too long to deal with the volunteer shortage
Walters: I would say the average department a few years ago could have been 25 or 30 people — was kind of an average number of members on a fire department — that same average might be 15 to 18 now just because there isn't bodies to choose from, or those people have other interests and are not interested in devoting the time it takes to be a firefighter.Walters says firefighters in Minnesota fare better than in most other states. Here volunteers receive an average hourly wage when they respond to a fire. They also receive a pension after twenty years of service. Small communities with a low tax base can have problems raising funds so departments are often forced to raise money themselves, but Walter says departments are accustomed to playing many roles in a community.
Walters: Like whether it be the old scenario of a cat up a tree or a lost child or the somebody has fallen into a well; no matter what the emergency is, no matter what the crisis is in the town ...where are we going to get people to respond? Well, the fire whistle blows and the fire fighter responds.Some departments are using new recruiting strategies. Minnesota's biggest volunteer fire departments, Bloomington and Eagan, go door-to-door knocking every year to meet residents and recruit new members. The Atwater Fire Department near Willmar is beginning the tradition as well. More than half of Atwater's volunteers are expected to retire within the next few years.
Volunteer Fire Chief Greg Tauer says the public response to their door knocking so far has been a success. Already eight people have shown a strong interest in fire and medical training and Tauer says he expects more to follow.
Tauer: I think the people, maybe they didn't forget about us but they maybe didn't realize what was going on, and the fact that there was a definite need, and that we are a very valuable service to the community. We go on about 80 to 100 ambulance calls per year and approximately 50 fire calls and we were maybe being taken for granted just a little bit and this has really opened up people's eyes to say, "You know, we need some support to keep this service alive and running."While firefighters in Atwater are taking to the streets to recruit new volunteers, other departments are heading to the schools.
In Belle Plain, Minnesota, high school seniors 18 and older who meet a certain grade-point average can now respond to fires during school hours. The hope is that more young people will become interested in the profession and find a reason to stay in town after graduation. In Mankato, college students who volunteer for duty are given free room and board at the fire station.
The National Fire Council has begun an ad campaign to recruit new volunteers. Billboards advertise local fire departments and provide a phone number for details. Because of the dwindling number of volunteer firefighters in Minnesota, the ads will be going up around the state soon.