By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
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All the Peninsula's fire districts offer training and equipment free of charge to volunteers.
Some also pay stipends and provide benefits, such as enrollment in state-run volunteer firefighter retirement programs after a given number of years enrolled with a district.
Training programs can last anywhere from three months to two years, depending on the type of certification a volunteer trains for.
Peninsula Daily News
Clallam County Fire District 2 is the latest North Olympic Peninsula fire district to put out a call for volunteers, saying the shortage is critical.
Recruiting and keeping volunteer firefighters is a problem nationwide, say fire chiefs across Jefferson and Clallam counties.
“All fire departments across this nation are facing this [volunteer] shortage because the times have changed,” said Bill Beezley, East Jefferson Fire-Rescue spokesman.
The reasons are varied, fire chiefs say, but often stem from economic factors, such as volunteers moving out of the area to seek work and the sheer time commitment it takes to be a volunteer firefighter.
“I'd say that recruiting and retaining volunteers is one of the great challenges facing the fire service today,” said Port Angeles Fire Chief Ken Dubuc.
Beezley said he thinks a large contributing factor is also a change in the way volunteering is viewed now compared with decades ago.
Often employers today, for various reasons, cannot let their workers who are also volunteer firefighters leave in the middle of the day to respond to a call, Beezley said.
“All fire departments across this nation are facing this [volunteer] shortage because the times have changed,” he noted.
Fire District No. 2
The 95 percent-volunteer Clallam County Fire District No. 2 — which covers 85 square miles that include Dry Creek, Black Diamond, Lake Sutherland and Gales Addition, and serves about 9,500 residents — has 28 volunteer vacancies to fill, Fire Chief Sam Phillips said.
“It's very critical for us moving forward,” he said.
“Our future depends on volunteers and quite frankly always will depend on volunteers.”
Thirty-two volunteers are enrolled now.
In 2012, Fire District No. 2 gained 24 new volunteer members, but it lost 18 in 2013, Phillips said.
Phillips said the district is specifically seeking volunteers for the fire stations that cover the Black Diamond area west of Port Angeles and the Deer Park area to the east.
“We need people that live in that area, that live close to the stations, to volunteer,” Phillips said.
Risk of lower score
If enough volunteers cannot be found, Phillips said, the risk is that Black Diamond and Deer Park stations might no longer count toward the fire district's score with the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau.
This score, currently at a 7, with 10 being the worst, influences fire insurance rates for both residents and businesses, Phillips said.
“Property owners should be very concerned if they have homes and businesses in the areas of Deer Park or Black Diamond,” he said.
In 2010, Fire District No. 2's Lake Sutherland station was no longer included in the district's score because of a lack of volunteer firefighters staffing the station, he said.
Fire insurance issues
That led to higher fire insurance premiums for Lake Sutherland-area residents because they were no longer within 5 miles of a qualifying fire station, Phillips said.
A lack of volunteers at the Black Diamond and Deer Park stations could cause the same thing to happen in these areas.
“We probably could not count those fire stations if we were rated today because we don't have staff living in those areas,” Phillips said.
The district also maintains stations in the Gales Addition and Dry Creek areas.
It employs three full-time and three part-time firefighter/paramedics through a $422,140 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant set to expire in September.
Fire District No. 3
Steve Vogel, chief of Clallam County Fire District No. 3, said his district, the largest in the county, has lost about 30 volunteers — from 81 to 51 — since last year.
Vogel said most moved out of the area to seek jobs.
“I would say in the last two years, the economy has really pulled a lot of young people out of Clallam County,” he said.
With 51 volunteers and 40 full-time firefighter/paramedics, the district serves about 28,000 people through stations in Sequim, Carlsborg and Blyn staffed 24/7 and three combination volunteer/staffed stations in the R Corner Dungeness, Diamond Point and Lost Mountain areas.
“Where we're hurting really bad [for volunteers] is in Dungeness, Diamond Point and Lost Mountain,” Vogel said.
Residents in the Lost Mountain area, where the district has only two volunteers, already experience higher fire insurance rates because of a 9 rating from the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau, Vogel said.
Fire District No. 4
Alex Baker, chief of the Joyce-centered Clallam County Fire District No. 4, said he is not concerned about rates going up because of a dearth of volunteers.
“The need for volunteers is not urgent, but the need to acquire new volunteers is there due to the current volunteer staff putting in a lot of hours,” Baker said.
The district has 26 members, all volunteers, and maintains fire stations in Joyce and off Freshwater Bay Road.
It began a recruiting campaign in September to attract more members, Baker said.
Many former volunteers have volunteered recently.
“So we're looking to start training a new force, the young up-and-comers,” Baker said.
Clallam districts 1, 6
The chiefs of Clallam County Fire District Nos. 1, which covers Beaver and Forks, and 6, which covers the Quileute Prairie and Three Rivers areas, echoed Baker's sentiment about an existent but not quite critical need for volunteers.
Both districts are all-volunteer.
“I wouldn't call it critical, but we definitely would be happy if there were some volunteers that came and were interested in signing up,” Fire District No. 6 Chief Jeff Baysinger said.
“It's not critical, but you can never have a full crew,” Fire District No. 1 Chief Bill Paul said.
Beezley of East Jefferson Fire-Rescue said the regular training sessions that volunteer firefighters have to attend are a huge time commitment for volunteers who often have other jobs.
“That wall of ongoing education is where it becomes a challenge for volunteers,” he said.
“And we've seen the volunteer ranks sort of wither because of that.”
The 31 full-time, paid staff of East Jefferson is augmented by about 24 volunteers, all serving Port Townsend and northeast Jefferson County with six fire stations.
Beezley said some of his district's trouble in attracting new volunteers is the average age of the districts' residents.
“We have a lot of 60-year-old people here, and that's not the talent pool we're looking [for],” Beezley said.
Fire chiefs in South Jefferson County shared this thought.
“For us, the challenge is finding them,” said Fire Chief Brad Martin with Port Ludlow Fire and Rescue.
“Our median age is 65.”
Port Ludlow operates three fire stations, two staffed and one volunteer, with 12 career personnel and eight volunteers.
“We do have paid staff. I wouldn't say [there's a] desperate [need], but I would say there's a strong need for [volunteers],” Martin said.
“We're pretty much always looking for volunteers,” said Larry Karp, chief of the Quilcene Fire Department.
An aging population and the busy lives of many residents are some reasons Karp thinks his department has trouble attracting volunteers.
“People aren't able to volunteer as much as they [did] back 20, 30, 40 years ago,” he said.
Karp said his all-volunteer department covers about 72 square miles and 2,500 people with three stations, with the main station in Quilcene being the only one staffed 24 hours daily.
“I think it's critical that if the community wants to continue utilizing volunteer firefighters that we keep our numbers up,” Karp said.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.