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Winona fire departments seek younger volunteers

  • Article by: TESLA MITCHELL
  • Associated Press
  • August 18, 2014 - 12:05 AM

WINONA, Minn. — Finding and retaining volunteers for fire departments across the region, state and country has been an increasing challenge.

The trend is no different in Winona County. Some departments are staffed by veterans with experience and wisdom, but lacking the physical ability of their younger years (whether they admit it or not). Other departments are looking for help from all ages to ensure they can respond quickly to calls.

Life in a volunteer department is never the same each day. Firefighters can rush out to a medical call in the morning, a car crash in the afternoon, a fire at night. Then there are specialized operations, like grain-bin rescues, Winona Daily News (http://bit.ly/1kwhrWh ) reported.

Gear is expensive. Training is expensive. And time, of course, is valuable to anyone. It all adds up, and it isn't all covered.

Some training and gear is paid for, some firefighters receive stipends and long-time department members are eligible for small pensions each year when they retire.

Still, the job is essentially as described -- volunteer.

So in recent years, area volunteer departments have turned to all kinds of creative ideas to help fill out the ranks with a younger generation, from special events to creative recruiting to simply doing their parts to make sure their cities are economically healthy and attracting new residents.

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The bottom line is this: Volunteer departments need young recruits. Badly.

"There were only a few people manning the department," said Pickwick volunteer Fire Chief Adam Zimmerman of the department's situation in recent years. Many of the members wanted to retire but didn't, because there wasn't anyone to replace them, he said.

It's not that potential volunteer firefighters aren't out there. But there are barriers. The biggest problem might be that the value of the work -- rescuing people, saving lives -- when weighed against the potential danger and time commitment isn't enough to attract younger volunteers, said Minnesota State Fire Marshal Bruce West.

"For a person to dedicate time to their community and their fire department, they want to know what's in it for them," West said.

Minnesota State Fire Association board member Tony Bronk, who also sits on the National Volunteer Fire Council, agreed.

With college, careers, families, hobbies and everything else, life is just too busy for many people to commit to about 80 to 140 hours of training, and then be on call 24 hours a day, he said.

"Now it seems everyone is constantly on the go," Bronk said. "Society has gotten to a point where you're not supposed to sit down for 10 minutes."

If 10 minutes is hard to spare, think of the hours, days, weeks.

"You could be on a run all day," said Goodview Fire Chief Todd Ives.

Or much longer.

Like in the case of the 2007 flood, when volunteer firefighters from across the area converged on the communities hit the worst, and stayed for days and weeks. For at least two days straight during the flood, Ives did nothing but eat, sleep and get back to it. His crew was right there with him -- despite that some no longer had a home or bed to go back to.

The challenge isn't always finding new recruits -- it's keeping them.

"With the younger folks the turnover rate is higher," said Minnesota City Fire Chief Tim Neyers. "They may not be committed to the area."

A new job, a new relationship, going to college or back to college. There are plenty of reasons for an able-bodied firefighter to up and leave.

And the trend of younger people being more mobile seems to continue to be growing, area volunteer fire chiefs said. It used to be you could count on a new firefighter committing for decades -- or for life.

Today commitment is easier measured in years. Departments are happy to have a body for five years, thrilled to keep them for 10.

That turnover is another part of the challenge.

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Volunteer departments face perennially tight budgets. Those budgets get even tighter when they're used to invest in firefighters who might not stick around.

A new pair of coat and pants can cost about $2,000, Goodview fire chief Ives said, and since volunteers often pay for training, a lot of departments will help with equipment. But if the volunteers leave quickly, the department loses that money, Ives said.

The state has recognized the problem, and is trying to help departments. There's an established fund through the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training, where money is set aside to help departments cover training and get volunteers into the department.

That doesn't help in one area, though: finding the recruits.

That's where some creative thinking can really help.

For some departments, like Lewiston and St. Charles, recruitment numbers are generally strong, in part because they're larger cities with stable employment in the otherwise rural and sparsely populated areas volunteer departments serve.

By comparison, departments like Wilson and Pickwick have to regularly step up recruiting efforts or find innovative ideas to bring people in.

"We really had light that fire," Pickwick fire chief Adam Zimmerman said.

The department implemented a youth program called Boy Scouts of America Fire Service Explorer, which gets kids involved with the departments at a young age - cleaning fire trucks, hanging with the crew, learning firefighting skills - all in the hopes they'll stay interested after turning 18.

Another approach is loosening bylaws. Like most departments, Pickwick once asked that volunteers be within a certain distance or travel time to the department. But that couldn't keep numbers high enough, so they've expanded the definition.

"If you live, work, or go to school in the Winona area you are allowed to volunteer at our department," Zimmerman said.

That opened a lot of doors. Pickwick started heavily recruiting from Winona State University and the Winona area, and now the department is up to 28 members -- with nearly half in their 20s.

New recruiting tactics haven't worked everywhere, though.

The Dakota Volunteer Fire Department, which like Pickwick serves the highly trafficked area of U.S. Hwy. 61, is not only low in number but has no volunteers in their 20s. The department has 18 members, with the 38 percent in their 50s or older. Another 38 percent are in their 40s, with the final quarter in their 30s.

"With Dakota we have an older community," explained fire chief Scott Hoeg. "There's not a lot of businesses there, so we don't have a lot of younger people moving in. It's a bedroom community."

Sixty-eight-year-old Dakota volunteer Lana Gerlach, who's been with the department for 26 years, agreed.

"It is a problem," she said.

Even in departments with healthy amounts of volunteers, there's anxiety about numbers dropping.

Some departments have more than a handful of volunteers who could retire at any point, and with the unpredictability of the younger generation, it's not easy to ever feel confident about staffing levels, area chiefs and volunteers said.

Every one echoed the same statement, nearly word for word:

"We could always use more volunteers."

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by Winona Daily News

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