At Rural Departments, Rookies Wanted

By Beacon Staff

MARTIN CITY – Leaning against a bright red fire truck, a Martin City volunteer firefighter looked on as an old mobile home burned to the ground. Like the handful of other firefighters nearby – some working, some watching – there was little urgency; this was only a practice fire.

Watching the fire whip and roar out windows and doors, the firefighter readjusted his helmet and showed a swath of white hair, revealing a problem facing the Martin City fire department and others like it: Volunteer firefighters are getting older and are having trouble recruiting young people.

“In the last four or five years, it has been obvious that less young people are volunteering and it’s a problem nationwide,” said Lincoln Chute, fire service area manager for Flathead County. “It’s not just here.”

Chute, who works with departments to coordinate firefighting services in rural areas, said all 18 volunteer fire departments in Flathead County are struggling to attract younger members. He believes it’s because people are busier now and don’t have the time to commit.

Tom Meskimen, assistant fire chief in Martin City, said many people are less inclined to be involved in their community.

“I just don’t know if people have that community spirit anymore and everyone is just so busy,” Meskimen said. “I’m just not seeing the interest anymore.”

Meskimen, 63, plans on retiring from the department next year and a couple of other firefighters in Martin City are considering doing the same. He worries that within a few years the firehouse on Central Avenue will “just be a building.”

Martin City Fire Chief Tom Torpen said that most of his crew are in their mid 40s. And of the 17 people on his roster, only two are younger than 30. Many members of the crew that protects Martin City from fires, as well as responds to accidents on U.S. Highway 2, are white-haired retirees. Torpen said age leads to some issues.

“You’ve got to be in pretty good shape to be a firefighter,” Torpen said. “You pick your youngest, most fit guys to go into a burning building because you don’t want someone to have a heart attack in there.”

Torpen also attributed the lack of young volunteers to an aging population in Northwest Montana. In 2000, 12 percent of Flathead County’s population was over the age of 65. Today, that number is at 14 percent. In 2000, the median age in Martin City was 41, a decade later it’s 45.

But there is some hope. Kip McKessick, 47, joined the Martin City department this spring, soon after moving to the area. He said he has always believed in community service and has tried to encourage the same within his family, including his children. Starting in a few weeks, one of McKessick’s teenage daughters will begin training as a junior firefighter. Although a junior firefighter doesn’t actively fight fires, and is never put in harm’s way, they train with other members and help out when they can. McKessick said he hopes in the future, when his daughter is able to join the ranks as volunteer, she will consider it.

Meskimen acknowledged the lack of young volunteers is starting to effect all of the area departments. In the past, rural departments have had agreements to borrow and exchange equipment; today the same is happening with firefighters. Now, when a fire crew is dispatched in Martin City, the Hungry Horse department goes as well, and vice versa. Without mutual aid agreements like that, Meskimen said it would almost be impossible for either department to effectively cover their districts. Torpen said both departments respond to about 150 calls annually.

“I kind of doubt that any of these departments could stand by themselves anymore,” Meskimen said.

But people like Chute, who also volunteers with the Bad Rock fire department, remain hopeful that the job itself will attract newcomers. He points to nights when the people he is helping aren’t just victims, but friends and neighbors.

“It only takes one or two calls to make you realize that this is very important and that you can make a difference,” he said. “Then you’re hooked.”