Rural fire departments face extra challenges

In many ways, rural volunteer fire districts must work harder than “career” departments to secure adequate funding, to maintain a workable infrastructure, and to recruit and properly train enough crew members for their needs.

By Kat Bryant

The Daily World

When firefighters are summoned in rural areas of Grays Harbor County, chances are the crews responding won’t be paid for their services.

And that’s OK with them.

Ranging from 20-somethings to retirees, volunteer firefighters in these outlying regions devote their downtime to saving lives with no thought of payment. To them, it’s simply how they wish to serve their communities.

But it involves much more than just showing up for emergencies. In many ways, rural volunteer fire districts must work harder than “career” departments to secure adequate funding, to maintain a workable infrastructure, and to recruit and properly train enough crew members for their needs.

Funding is sparse

Funding for fire departments in general is mostly tax-based, which means less populated areas provide less funding.

Fire District 8 in Pacific Beach is funded largely through assessments on real estate taxes. “That’s where most of our money comes in,” says Assistant Fire Chief Shari Curtright. “And we bill for ambulance runs as well.”

That, however, can be tricky. District 8’s crew includes emergency medical technicians, but no paramedics. EMTs are certified to provide basic life support (BLS) services, but paramedics are legally required when advanced life support (ALS) is needed.

“Under state mandate, if a person is having difficulty breathing, it’s automatic that we have to meet up with paramedics, and they transfer the patient,” says Curtright. “We get nothing from that; they get everything.”

And by “everything,” she means the ALS transporter charges not only the patient, but also District 8 for that run. That is generally how it works for the rural fire districts: BLS-level districts must pay either monthly or per-transport fees to neighboring providers for paramedic coverage as needed.

“It would help some of these smaller districts if we could get rid of the huge bills that we’re paying for ALS,” says District 8 PIO Stephanie Allestad.

Infrastructure is poor

The Harbor’s rural volunteer districts also come with more challenging topography, which creates issues with infrastructure and communications.

In Pacific Beach, “we’re still writing our reports on paper,” laughs Allestad. “We’re having a hard time getting to the next step with electronics. Wi-Fi out here is sketchy.”

Beyond that, the Grays Harbor emergency radio system is practically useless in the hills north of Ocean Shores.

“In Copalis Beach, at our normal stations, we can’t send or receive radio transmissions,” says Nick Falley, firefighter and EMT with Fire District 7. “So our primary mode of communication is shot because there’s just no infrastructure to support us being there.”

Allestad concurs: “We can’t even talk to each other on the same scene sometimes.”

At a recent fire in Pacific Beach, she notes, “I was up on top of a hill directing where the trucks were coming in, and then I basically had to have another incident commander down below because we couldn’t talk to each other over a cliff.”

And in communicating with responding police officers, she adds, “we have to tie up Harbor Dispatch just to get a message around the corner — which takes them away from taking a 9-1-1 call.”

And it’s difficult to air those concerns in the appropriate time and place.

“When I bring it up with the county, they say we have these radio board (meetings) that are scheduled at times when our volunteer chiefs are at their (day) jobs. So all the funding goes to Aberdeen and Hoquiam,” says Falley. “Those cities have no radio issues. But we’re out here, and we can’t talk to each other.”

He notes that a countywide levy passed last year that was meant to help upgrade that system. “But if we don’t have a voice at the table, we’ll miss out on those funds,” he says. “Career departments have the resources to vouch for their infrastructure, and then we kind of get the slim pickin’s — and we’re out in the areas where we really need it.”

This can be particularly frustrating for the rural volunteer crews, says Allestad.

“We make up the majority (of the districts),” she says, “but we have the smallest voice.”

Unfunded mandates cut deep

Another beef is what Allestad calls “unfunded mandates,” which hit volunteer fire departments especially hard.

For example, when the county revamped its 9-1-1 system, every rig and piece of equipment in every fire district had to be renumbered to match the new radio IDs — “and not one penny went to help any of these districts do that,” says Allestad. “When you’ve got a district with an annual budget of just $50,000, and then you’re forcing them to do $5,000 to $8,000 worth of changes — that’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about.”

Crew training also is affected by sweeping regulations that don’t take local resources into account.

After initial training and certification is complete, the state requires active firefighters to undergo continuing education and hands-on practice — some monthly, some annual, but all requiring volunteers to give up numerous extra hours of downtime.

“Governing bodies and insurance companies want firefighters all trained to the same standard. So you have a career firefighter and that’s all they do, seven days a week, is train to be at that standard,” says Falley. “But then you’re expecting (volunteers) to add that on top of their full-time jobs. That’s where those borderline unrealistic expectations come into play.

“Of course we want everyone trained to that level where we can all operate interchangeably,” he adds. “But you can’t expect someone who’s working a full-time job to put forth all those hours. You lose a lot of volunteers right there.”

EMT certification piles on even more of a time demand.

“If they’re going to be an EMT, that requires the 120-hour EMT certification program — and then they have to keep up their certification, which involves training every month,” says Curtright. “So it’s hard to find someone with a full-time job who’s able to commit to that type of training.”

In addition, Allestad notes, “that training and certification takes place during the week, and we can’t expect volunteers to take the time off from their jobs to attend. Some of these trainings are a week long.”

Beyond the time constraints, funding also comes into play for certain training requirements. “Some of these smaller districts just can’t afford to send their people,” says Allestad.

“Awhile ago, I paid for my own training,” she adds. “I wanted that training, and I was capable of paying for it myself.”

And yet, despite all of the challenges, every volunteer interviewed for these stories emphasized that there’s nothing they would rather be doing with their downtime.

For them, it’s a calling that requires no compensation.