As a kid, Kristian Testa-Denny remembers hearing her father’s pager going off at 2 a.m. She and her brother would stand in the hallway with their pajamas and sneakers on, asking if they could tag along with their dad as he responded to a car accident as a volunteer firefighter.
“He’d roll his eyes and say, ‘Come on,’” Testa-Denny said.
Testa-Denny’s father, Joe Testa, who is now 70, volunteered at the Avondale Fire Company in Pennsylvania for 40 years before moving to Columbia Falls in 2009. He spent the next 11 years volunteering at Bad Rock Volunteer Fire Department.
After 51 years as a volunteer firefighter, Testa recently announced his retirement.
“I think he’s going to miss it,” his daughter said.
“It’s going to be weird to not have that pager going off.”
From responding to car accidents and structure fires to painting the fire hall and acting as the president of the Firefighter’s Association for six years, Bad Rock Fire Chief Kirk Katzenmeyer says Testa will be missed.
“You couldn’t ask for somebody better,” Katzenmeyer said. “He’s knowledgeable and he helps train the young people. He’s humble.”
Aside from losing a valuable volunteer, Katzenmeyer says he’s always searching for new volunteers.
“It’s a never-ending shortage,” he said.
Right now, Bad Rock has 17 volunteers who range from age 21 to 66, but Katzenmeyer says he’d ideally like to have 24 total. While at one point the fire department had 28 volunteers, Katzenmeyer says that was quite a while ago and it’s becoming harder to recruit as life becomes busier for most people.
“They seem to be older — that’s part of the problem,” Katzenmeyer said. “The firefighters have gray hair now and it’s a strenuous thing to do.”
At 62, Katzenmeyer started serving at Bad Rock 17 years ago when he saw a sign out front asking for volunteers.
Like Testa, he became committed and loves the rewarding experience associated with responding to a fire or car accident, but also the camaraderie. With regular fire department dinners and social events, the volunteers are like family.
Testa-Denny remembers going to breakfast at the firehouse with her dad in Pennsylvania, and she was well acquainted with the families of the other volunteers.
But Katzenmeyer is noticing a trend of disinterest from people nowadays.
“I think we’ll always have people who will volunteer, but volunteerism in society isn’t what it used to be,” Katzenmeyer said.
Covering Hungry Horse to Creston, the low-density area isn’t busy enough to warrant a paid department, Katzenmeyer says, with only three or four calls a week. There were 283 incidents total in 2020, with similar numbers during the year prior.
But despite the low volume of calls, he hopes to recruit more volunteers to both to replace those who are retiring and to grow the department.
“It gets in your blood and you can’t stop,” Katzenmeyer said. “I think that happens to a lot of people.”
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