Answering the call: How Routt County fire departments are coping with dwindling staffing levels
Steamboat Springs — With several pails of diesel fuel at his side, veteran Hayden firefighter Wayne DeLuca was preparing to show this year’s class of recruits how to fight fire.
Inside the training facility just south of Hayden, DeLuca poured fuel on a small fire and the smoke above his head ignited, catching his helmet’s badge on fire.
“That happens sometimes,” he said.
DeLuca stayed low where his gear protected him from the 300-degree temperatures. At the ceiling, temperatures reached upward of 1,500 degrees during the training exercise.
“Once that fire gets rolling, you wouldn’t want to take your gloves off,” DeLuca said.
To illustrate what not to do, DeLuca directed a blast of water directly to the bottom of the fire, causing a rush of air, which makes the fire even more volatile.
“We’re going to see how aggravated and irritated it gets,” DeLuca said before putting on his respirator and lighting the fire.
Trainee Nick DeLuca, a 2013 Hayden High School graduate, then showed his dad he knew the right way to attack the fire as he aimed the hose at the ceiling.
“It was pretty awesome,” Nick DeLuca said as he removed his equipment at the end of the exercise.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and this trainee was getting a lot of one-on-one attention because he is the only recruit going through the department’s training program.
“Volunteerism just isn’t what it used to be,” said Dal Leck, one of two full-time paid firefighters with the West Routt Fire Protection District.
Here lies the problem.
Across the United States, fire departments that rely on volunteers and minimally paid firefighters are struggling to fill their ranks. It is no different here in Routt County, and local officials increasingly are growing concerned. They said local staffing levels not only put their firefighters at risk, they also increase response times, putting lives and property at risk.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased 18 percent since 1984. At the same time, call volume increased by 153 percent between 1986 and 2011. With volunteers comprising 69 percent of firefighters in the country, they create an estimated $140.7 billion in savings each year.
There are many reasons cited for the drop in volunteer numbers, and the solutions to fix this growing problem are not easy.
In West Routt, staffing levels are the lowest they have been in recent history, and in Oak Creek, the minimum requirements are not being met. Within the Steamboat Springs Fire Protection District, eight firefighters are on call 24/7 to help guarantee a timely response, but that kind of service comes at a cost. For 2014, $2,591,703 is being proposed in the Steamboat budget for 32 full-time fire department employees.
Strength in numbers
Wayne DeLuca, a Hayden native who has volunteered with the fire department for 26 years, knows firsthand how important it is to have an adequate number of trained firefighters.
On Jan. 25, 1998, the Denver Broncos were fighting to win their first Super Bowl, and DeLuca was fighting for his life after a chimney collapsed on him while fighting a house fire. Steamboat firefighters had just arrived at the scene to help when DeLuca peeked upstairs and saw more fire.
“The next thing I remember, Dal and someone else were getting me on a backboard,” DeLuca said.
He spent the night in the hospital with a dislocated shoulder and a concussion.
A few days later, DeLuca and two rookies met at the station to go on another house fire call.
“We only had three guys on that fire, and I was one-handed,” DeLuca said.
West Routt Fire Chief Bryan Rickman pointed to an incident in 2008 that he said further illustrates the challenges departments face when they rely on firefighters who have other commitments and full-time jobs.
When 15-year-old Robert “Bobby” Donelson had a heart attack on the high school football field, Rickman and Leck were bringing a patient to the hospital in Steamboat 30 miles away.
“It took 14 minutes to put together an ambulance crew to go to that call,” Rickman said. “The community was not happy with that response time.”
Rickman said a faster response would not have saved Bobby’s life but said there are numerous examples of rapid response times saving lives.
A big commitment
During the most recent monthly Tuesday night training, trainee Nick DeLuca returned to the fire training facility with 10 other Hayden firefighters. They geared up and practiced pulling out three victims from inside a burning structure. The victims were fake, but the fire and smoke were real. It is hot and dark inside the shipping containers joined together like Legos that make up the training facility, and verbal communication nearly is impossible.
Most of those participating in the training were not getting paid, and they were spending time away from their families and other commitments.
The time required to not only complete the initial training but also to keep those certifications active can be a big deterrent to anyone wanting to be a non-career firefighter. Being available to respond to calls also can be a challenge.
“It’s been tough getting people to sign up for paid shifts,” Oak Creek Fire Protection District Chief Chuck Wisecup said.
Rickman said it also is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to let their firefighting employees leave work to go on calls.
In Hayden, getting firefighters to respond to calls is more difficult because most people work outside town during the day.
Asking voters for help
At West Routt, Rickman said volunteer numbers have dropped drastically. In 2006, the department had 20 firefighters and 23 medical responders. This year, they have 14 firefighters and nine medical responders.
“We would like to have about 25 firefighters,” Rickman said.
The department uses a hybrid system of paid and volunteer firefighters, though the word “volunteer” can be a bit misleading in the fire world.
West Routt firefighters are paid. Those going on fire and ambulance calls get $40 per call. Those working a wildland fire make $17.50 per hour. In addition to two full-time firefighters, the department also has six part-time positions that equal one full-time position.
The system is not working, though, Rickman said, and the department is going to have to add more paid shifts.
“The mill levy is going to dictate whether that happens,” Rickman said.
In November, voters in the district will be asked to increase the mill levy by 1.5 mills. That proposal would represent about a 50 percent increase.
In 2012, the owner of a $200,000 home paid $49.24 in taxes to the fire district. Under the proposed tax increase, the same homeowner would pay $73.12. The proposed tax increase would raise an additional $175,000 annually. In 2012, taxes generated $436,771 in revenue for the district.
In Oak Creek, Wisecup’s department also is short staffed, and it sometimes is hard to get four firefighters onto an engine to respond to a call.
“We’re not meeting national standards right now,” Wisecup said.
On average, Wisecup said, one volunteer will show up to a call for every three volunteers the department has.
Four years ago, he said, it became apparent the department had to do something to address staffing.
“People just have too much going on,” Wisecup said.
The district relaxed the attendance requirements for trainings.
“Instead of coming to a meeting once a month, they had to come to one per quarter,” Wisecup said.
The fire district even considered hiring someone to baby-sit so parents could attend the trainings.
The steps implemented had some success.
Wisecup is hoping a continued economic recovery will lead to higher property values and, therefore, more money for his district. That will allow him to increase paid staffing, he said.
Like West Routt, Oak Creek uses a hybrid system with three full-time paid positions. Part-time firefighters can pick up shifts to help ensure two firefighters are working 24/7.
After 20 years of service, volunteers can receive $300 per month in pension. After 10 years, volunteers are paid $35 per call. Reserve firefighters do not put in time toward a pension but are paid $35 per call.
In the Steamboat area, the firefighter staffing crisis came to a head in the early 2000s.
The call volume was increasing 7 percent each year, and volunteers were leaving work to respond to what would turn out to be erroneous calls, such as false alarms. Firefighters got burned out.
“I can’t think of how many great firefighters gave it up because of the stress on the family,” said Bob Struble, who used to head up the department and now is the director of Routt County Emergency Management.
By 2008, the call volume was expected to reach the 2,000 mark.
“That’s what prompted us going to a paid staff to ensure that there was a crew ready to go,” Struble said.
The city’s fire department merged with the ambulance provider in 2002.
It came at a considerable cost, though, and the move was controversial. Struble said some called him the “evil empire builder.”
In 2001, there were 6.25 full-time positions that cost $356,605. After the merger and the decision to create a department with full-time employees, the number jumped in 2003 to 18.45 full-time positions at a cost of $954,844. The proposed budget for 2014 calls for 32 full-time employees at a cost of $2.59 million.
“Personnel costs went up quite a bit,” Struble said. “The flipside of that is the community is protected by a staff of people that are ready to go out. It’s a trade-off; it really is.”
Today, Fire Marshal Jay Muhme said that in addition to the full-time employees, six part-time employees are used to help cover shifts when firefighters take vacations. The department has one unpaid volunteer and four reservists. The reservists do not yet have the training to fill shifts, but they can go on calls and are paid minimum wage, Muhme said.
A true passion
In the North Routt and Yampa fire protection districts, the fire chiefs cautiously said they currently have adequate staffing.
North Routt has 18 firefighters, and six of them are cross-trained as emergency medical technicians.
“For a volunteer fire department, you can never have enough,” said Mike Swinsick, who took over as chief Aug. 15. “On one big call, you can be all out of help in a hurry. As far as emergency response goes, we have enough to cover our district at a minimum.”
Swinsick is the only paid firefighter. Everyone else are unpaid volunteers.
“They volunteer to give back to the community,” Swinsick said. “Some of us actually enjoy it.”
In Yampa, everyone, including Chief Dan Allen, is an unpaid volunteer.
“We are the only 100 percent volunteer department in Routt County,” Allen said.
Like other small departments, Yampa sometimes relies on help from neighboring departments.
Allen said Yampa has about 15 firefighters, and several are cross-trained to provide medical care. On average, Allen said, about six or seven people show up to a call. It helps that four of the firefighters work in Yampa and are available to respond quickly to a call, Allen said.
Allen said the Yampa firefighters are proud to volunteer their time, though it can be a lot. They have training on the first and third Mondays of each month and on some weekends.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize what it takes for us to do what we do as volunteers,” Allen said. “It’s a passion. That’s all it is.”
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