A few weeks ago, when the Somers/Lakeside Volunteer Fire Department got the call about a head-on collision on U.S. Highway 93, only three men were able to respond on the first truck. Two weeks later, when the department received an early morning call about a house fire in Lakeside, two volunteers were able to initially respond to the blaze that took a 41-year-old woman’s life.
Officials say the two incidents are a stark reminder about the need for volunteers at rural fire departments in Northwest Montana, which have been struggling to find rookies the last few years.
“We’ve got fewer volunteers and yet the number of calls we get a year have nearly doubled,” said Somers/Lakeside fire chief Dave Hayes. “When you show up to a major fire with only five or six people it’s tough to do our job safely.”
According to Hayes, who has been with the department for nearly 30 years, 18 volunteers work out of the firehouse, although not everyone fights fire. A decade ago the department had an average roster of 25 volunteers and some years as many as 38. But the economic downturn meant more people had to work a second job just to make ends meet and didn’t have time to volunteer at the local fire department.
Meanwhile, the number of emergency calls across the valley is increasing. In years past, Somers/Lakeside would get 80 to 150 calls a year; this year they will have more than 260 calls.
Flathead County’s aging population makes the matter more urgent. In 2000, 12 percent of Flathead County’s population was over the age of 65. More than a decade later, in 2013, it had grown to 16.5 percent.
“It’s just a bunch of old guys here,” said Martin City fire chief Tom Torpen. “It’s really tough to get some of the younger guys to volunteer.”
James Brower is the Marion Volunteer Fire Department chief and training coordinator for Flathead County Emergency Services. He said every volunteer department in the Flathead Valley, from Marion to Martin City, are having a hard time finding and keeping firefighters. One reason is the amount of training involved for a volunteer firefighter compared to two or three decades ago. Brower said that’s because more household items are made with plastics and chemicals and fighting fire is more complex than it once was.
“Back in the day training standards were low but those standards have since gone up,” he said. “But it’s those same standards that make sure everyone goes home at the end of the day.”
When fire departments do arrive at the scene of a crash or fire without enough firefighters, they usually tap into mutual aid resources and call firefighters from other communities. That’s exactly what happened in both the U.S. Highway 93 accident and Lakeside fire. But Hayes said the problem with mutual aid is that it pulls resources away from other communities.
Brower said there are some advantages to volunteering at a local fire department, besides helping your community. The training given to local volunteer firefighters can be incredibly useful if someone wants to become a career first responder. D.C. Haas, the fire chief for Smith Valley, said that’s how he tries to attract new recruits.
“For the younger individuals who are looking to make firefighting into a career, volunteering at a local fire department can be a great way to get some experience under your belt before that first big interview,” he said.
For more information about volunteering at your local fire department call the Flathead County Office of Emergency Services at (406) 758-2194 to find out where your local fire department is.