Volunteer firefighter tradition strained by modern Whidbey Island living

A Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue firefighter douses the flames of a burning Coupeville home in 2011. The district is running a levy lid lift this month in hopes of addressing a decline in volunteer levels.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
A Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue firefighter douses the flames of a burning Coupeville home in 2011. The district is running a levy lid lift this month in hopes of addressing a decline in volunteer levels.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

So you want to be a firefighter, huh? Great, here’s a helmet and a slicker. Sorry we don’t have money for boots. The next time you hear the sirens go off, come on down and we’ll have some fun.

More or less, that was the induction an enthusiastic 29-year-old Stan Anderson recevied more than 45 years ago when he was first received as a Coupeville volunteer firefighter. It was a pretty standard welcome aboard for new recruits in the mid-1960s, and to the young dentist and aspiring fireman, it sounded pretty good.

Riding around on the backs of fire engines, battling raging infernos and saving lives; it was real hero stuff.

“I had a little kid’s dream,” Anderson said.

At the time, two fire departments called Coupeville home and both were manned entirely by volunteers. Anderson said, in a big way, it felt like he had become part of a larger family, a brotherhood of self-sacrificing people who would drop what they were doing at a moment’s notice to help a neighbor in need.

Lacking the tax base to fund a full-time paid staff, volunteers have long served as the backbone of small community fire departments. It’s a proven model and one that’s been relied upon for generations across the country.

But something is happening.

Nationally, volunteer levels are on the decline and in some areas, the system is beginning to fall alarmingly short. Counted among them is Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue, a district struggling to provide 24-hour coverage to about 10,000 residents.

The department is hoping to address the issue with a 34-cent levy lid increase, which will appear on the Feb. 14 special election ballot. But the question remains. Where have our volunteers gone and what does the future hold for a once tried and true method of providing fire service in rural areas?

A dying breed?

In 1993, Central Whidbey was served by 57 volunteers and two paid staff, consisting of a fire chief and office manager.

Since then, volunteer numbers have plummeted to just 17 --- a reduction of 70 percent. The service they once provided alone is now supplemented with 19 part and full-time employees, which includes two command chiefs and two office staff.

While there is no single smoking gun for the decline, it is attributed to a handful of problems. Perhaps one of the greatest is the time it takes to train a modern-day firefighter, according to Central Whidbey Fire Chief Ed Hartin.

Hartin’s induction to a fire department in 1974 was a lot like Anderson’s. A captain asked him if he could drive a truck. He answered yes and was subsequently told, “Good, that one’s yours.”

“That was it,” Hartin said.

Those days are long gone. Today, becoming a certified firefighter requires more than 150 hours of training. Tack on another 100 hours to that if you want to be an emergency medical technician as well.

A lack of working wage jobs on Whidbey is also a major issue. Where once people like Anderson were able to volunteer because they lived and worked in the community, many today just don’t have the time because they work off-island jobs.

An aging population is also a likely factor. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age in Coupeville has risen from 43 in 2000 to 51 in 2011. The result has been an increase in the number of medically related calls, but has also served to dilute the pool of potential young volunteers.

Social changes may also be playing a role. During his 37-year career as a volunteer firefighter, Anderson, now 75, worked for decades as a Coupeville dentist. Over the years, he left more than a few patients sitting in the chair.

Today, there seems to be a more general reluctance on the behalf of both employers and employees to drop everything and go, he said.

“Maybe I’m a dying breed of volunteer,” Anderson said.

Paid employees

When volunteer levels began to decline in the early 1990s, the department began adding paid employees to fill the gap, according to Joe Biller, Central Whidbey’s former longtime chief and its first full time employee.

The busiest time of day for the district is during daytime hours, the same time most volunteers are least available. With fewer volunteers available, it made sense to hire a day shift you knew would be there, he said.

“That’s the bread and butter when the pager goes off,” he said.

When a 911 call comes in, firefighters are notified by pager. But, due to the obvious constraints of having other commitments, volunteers aren’t required to show up.

The system works by having a large pool of volunteers. The more there are, the more likely enough will be available at the time to respond and provide an adequate response. But there are no guarantees.

“You never really know what you’re going to get,” Hartin said.

Today, as a combination fire department composed of volunteers, part-time and full-time firefighters, there is a minimum of two paid staff on shift at all times. While they ensure that someone will be around to respond, it’s not always enough.

Late last year, it took more than 30 minutes and the help of two other departments for an adequate number of firefighters to respond to an attic fire in Coupeville.

Calls skyrocket

A big part of the problem is that the job has changed dramatically. Once charged only with extinguishing a blaze, today firefighters are a jack of all trades, responding to everything from medical problems, gas spills and marine rescues to downed power lines, car accidents and smoke complaints.

“If you can’t shoot it, call the fire department,” Anderson said.

Since 1996, the district’s call volume has exploded from about 500 to about 960 in 2011. Just 2.5 percent of calls last year were for actual fires. The vast majority, 67 percent, were rescue and medical incidents.

With more calls than ever before, and a smaller pool of volunteers to help out, multiple calls at once are a serious problem, Hartin said. The first call will see a response by paid personnel, but the second is covered largely by volunteers. Because they are spread so thin, the reality is simple yet startling.

“Don’t be the second guy to call,” Hartin said.

National problem

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, the country’s leading nonprofit membership association for volunteers, an estimated 1.3 million firefighters were serving in the U.S. in 2010.

Of those, 70 percent were volunteers.

However, national levels have dropped 14 percent in recent decades, from 897,750 in 1984 to 768,150 in 2010. The decline is not so much that organization officials are questioning the volunteer model, but it is being monitored closely.

“Right now we’re at the lowest it’s been in the last 25 years,” spokeswoman Kimberly Quiros said. “It is something we need to address now rather than later.”

And like Central Whidbey, what appears to be a national problem is affecting other island fire districts as well. South Whidbey Fire/EMS Fire Chief Rusty Palmer said they are experiencing many of the same pressures, particularly in the area of retainment.

Palmer said volunteer numbers currently rest at 59, though the department lost 22 and picked up 24 over the past two years. The problem is that many of today’s aspiring volunteers are hoping for paid jobs. With few to go around on the island, they tend to leave and go where the work is.

“If we can get five years out of a volunteer, we’re doing great,” Palmer said.

Also, those who do want to stay tend to be older. Of the district’s current 59 volunteers, 51 percent are over 40 years old. That’s concerning because firefighting is largely a young person’s game, Palmer said.

With its current legion of 78 volunteers, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue alone seems immune to the problem. Fire Chief Marv Koorn said Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is a big factor but other recruitment and retainment efforts also play a role.

For Central Whidbey, the volunteer problem remains a challenge. Success at the polls this month will help as some of the money levied will fund recruitment efforts, Hartin said. But it’s a complicated problem and there is no quick fix.

Regardless of what voters decide, this is an issue that won’t go away on its own and has to be addressed.

“Somehow, someway, we have to fix that problem,” Hartin said.


First of a series tied to levy

This is the first story of a three-part series looking at declining volunteer levels at Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue. The issue is beginning to adversely affect the department’s performance with increased response times.

The district is hoping to address the issue with a 34-cent levy-lid increase on the Feb. 14 special election ballot. Estimated to garner an additional $510,000 a year, the money would fund recruitment efforts and the maintenance of existing apparatus.

If passed, homeowners would pay about $1.34 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2012. For a $300,000 home, that tabs out to $33.50 per month or $402 annually.

Part two of the series is scheduled to run Wednesday and include an in-depth look at two of today’s new volunteers: Brad Sherman and Bob Moore. The story will focus on who they are and why they serve.


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