Guest Column written by Bill Ritchey —
It is 2 a.m. in the dead of winter. You’re asleep in the comfort of your own bed, and are suddenly jarred awake by the insistent piercing alert and dispatch tones from a pager. Your heart reflexively pounds in your chest… the “pressure” of an adrenalin surge. You can’t control it, no time to think about it, you forge ahead.
To the station. Responding to an accident in freezing rain and snow in a top-heavy 30,000 lb. hulk of metal, you’re in the “Golden Hour” – that window of time during which there is the highest likelihood that prompt medical treatment will prevent death. The victim’s life depends on your skill and prompt evacuation to the trauma center. As the precious minutes tick away, you wrestle with the Hurst Tool (“Jaws of Life”), ignoring the fatigue in your shoulders and arms.
Or perhaps it’s summer time. You’d rather be fishing. Instead, you’re facing an out-of-control wildland fire in stifling 100 degree heat – a fire that’s racing toward 30,000 gallon propane tanks in the middle of town.
You are experienced and understand the consequences. Failure is NOT an option. Hundreds or even thousands of lives are in peril, but those rushing to evacuate are unaware of this developing threat. You have one weak reassurance though: if it blows, you won’t know it because you will be instantly vaporized.
Why do they do it?
Fortunately for us, some do.
Most of us don’t.
There used to be more of them in our county, these dedicated volunteers. In fact, many more — two to three hundred. They were the store clerk and the local insurance agent. The preacher and plumber. The logger and the off-duty deputy sheriff. The legacy of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. is iconic, and has endured the lifespan of our nation. Even today, volunteers comprise nearly two-thirds of the ranks of all firefighters in this country.
But times have changed. The Madera County Fire Department reports the “active” number of volunteer/Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs) has dwindled to about 100, according to Battalion Chief Matt Watson.
The ranks of volunteer firefighter companies are thinning all across the nation, and the decline in volunteers is not unique to the fire service. A 2015 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports volunteerism of all types has trended downward for thirteen consecutive years.
Among reasons cited — people holding two jobs to make ends meet; one parent families; two working adults in a household; time demands of parenting; and an aging population in rural areas.
Over the last ten to fifteen years, the demands and requirements placed on the volunteer force have also dramatically increased. Training far exceeds simply directing a water stream at a fire.
Compounding the problem — calls for fire service have also increased dramatically as Madera County’s population has surged, and firefighters respond to medical emergencies as “first responders.” Although EMS (Emergency Medical Services) calls comprise about 70 percent of calls for service, Madera County PCFs are paid only for response to fire calls and auto accidents. That’s the “volunteer” part of what they do, and it’s the majority of their call-outs.
While the County provides training — but not compensation for time and travel — and personal protective equipment (turnouts, helmets, regular fire boots, Nomex for wildland fires) it does not provide wildland fire boots or duty uniforms. In fact, some PCFs have no duty uniform as they are left to buy them on their own. In contrast Fresno County PCFs are provided with a duty uniforms and badges.
Some fire departments have auxiliaries that support the PCFs, such as North Fork’s Station 11 Auxiliary that buys duty uniforms for their firefighters, along with wildland boots, radios, vests, AEDs, infrared cameras, even Jaws of Life and other equipment not provided by the County, but that is not the norm.
In 2002, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 1207. This legislation, sponsored by the California State Firefighters Association, was to ensure all firefighters have proper equipment and training for all types of calls to which they respond. Volunteer/PCFs must now be trained to the same initial training level as professional firefighters.
In a 2004 article appearing in Firehouse, then-Assistant Chief Bob Criss of the Lind Fire Department in Sutter County said, “The more things you pile on the people, it puts a heavy burden on them. People don’t have time anymore. Volunteers are slowly becoming a dying breed.”
Today, volunteer recruits receive training in bloodborne pathogens, emergency medical response and defibrillator training, child and elder abuse, Incident Command system, firefighter survival, hazardous materials, auto extrication and personal protective equipment, to name a few. The training is rigorous.
Volunteer firefighting can be dangerous work. According to the National Fire Protection Association, volunteer firefighters experience a higher injury rate on the fire ground and when responding to calls, as compared to professional firefighters. Proponents of comprehensive volunteer training often cite this fact as justification for such rigorous training.
The Madera County Fire Department recently conducted a PCF Recruit Academy class, graduating thirteen firefighters into the County Fire ranks. These recruits completed approximately 200 hours of training over a three month period, meeting one week night and every Saturday and Sunday. Training methods involved classroom activities and practical drills on training grounds.
This academy class marked the return of local PCF training to Madera County. In recent years, PCF recruits have had to attend training in Merced County due to the elimination of the local Training Officer position, which was cut as part of a county-wide budget reduction by the Board of Supervisors. The Board, however, restored the position this fiscal year due to an improvement in County finances.
Madera County PCFs provide a vital service which augments a force of 22 professional firefighter at six county stations. Only seven personnel cover those six stations 24/7. The remaining eight stations are staffed only by volunteer personnel.
A decline of volunteers has resulted in the closure of Dairyland Station 4 on the valley floor, and Coarsegold Station 13. Other stations in Madera County may face closure unless PCF numbers are bolstered in those areas.
As Madera County enters another fire season and struggles to provide adequate fire protection, remember to thank your neighbor, the hero… the Paid Call Firefighter.
This article is the first in a series describing recruitment, training, and deployment of Madera County Paid Call Firefighters.
Editor’s note: This series and others from Bill Ritchey will be exploring the challenges, current conditions and potential solutions to the issues facing the Madera County Fire Department. Bill is a resident of Raymond. With a Masters of Science degree in Nurse Anesthesia, he has been an anesthesia provider for 21 years, and has worked extensively providing trauma and critical care anesthesia at the regional trauma center in Fresno. He is very involved in advocacy for local emergency services, and helped formulate policy for pre-hospital advanced life support by ambulance personnel and fire department first responders in Madera County. He also served as a first responder trainer for Madera City and County Fire Departments.