If your house catches on fire in Bannock County, there’s a good chance the firefighters responding to the blaze will be volunteers.
Out of the nine fire departments serving the county, all but two are completely volunteer. The Pocatello Fire Department consists entirely of paid personnel while the Chubbuck Fire Department has both paid and volunteer firefighters.
This isn’t unique to Bannock County. Seven out of 10 American firefighters are volunteers. Volunteer fire departments serve large sections of the country and are most common in rural areas where paying firefighters is not financially possible. That's the case in all of Custer County.
But keeping volunteer fire departments going year after year is becoming more difficult because of an ever-increasing shortage of volunteer firefighters coupled with a continually rising number of emergency calls. Making matters worse is the large areas many volunteer fire departments cover, meaning the departments’ response times to emergencies can seem excessive.
Chubbuck Fire Chief Merlin Miller said the problem boils down to people not wanting to volunteer their time “like they did 20 or 50 years ago.” It’s a dilemma volunteer fire departments are trying to come to terms with coast to coast, and it doesn’t help that many current volunteer firefighters are growing older without an influx of younger recruits. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, about a third of volunteer firefighters are 50 or older.
Pete Williams, the chief of the American Falls Volunteer Fire Department, said some of his volunteers have been with the department for more than 40 years.
“It’s very, very, very hard to get volunteers in this day and age,” Williams said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to keep people. The volunteers we have now have probably been here on average for 15 years.”
Miller said the Chubbuck Fire Department might need to become staffed by full-time paid firefighters because of its continually increasing call volume. At present, 25 percent of the department’s personnel are full-time paid firefighters.
Many local volunteer fire departments are in the same situation, covering vast areas with a limited number of volunteer firefighters. The American Falls Volunteer Fire Department is responsible for a 641-square-mile area. The department has only 19 volunteer firefighters to cover that massive expanse.
But even local volunteer fire departments that protect smaller areas say they’re stretched too thin. The Pocatello Valley Volunteer Fire Department covers 36 square miles, but is plagued by too few volunteers trying to respond to an ever-growing number of calls using aging equipment.
Karen Aguilar, the chief of the Pocatello Valley Volunteer Fire Department, said it can be difficult to work around volunteers’ schedules even when there’s not an actual fire involved.
“We have to find time to do the training when they’re off work,” she said. “It’s challenging.”
And when there is a fire, volunteers must drop whatever they are doing and respond as quickly as possible. Sometimes volunteer firefighters can’t leave their jobs to respond to fires and this stretches their department’s staffing even thinner.
The lack of volunteer firefighters to cover large rural areas can obviously result in residents in those areas not having the same level of firefighting services as city residents served by paid full-time fire departments. However, it isn’t for lack of trying on the part of the volunteer firefighters.
Williams said the American Falls Volunteer Fire Department’s average response time is seven minutes.
“That’s close to a regular, full-time department’s time,” he said. “These guys are really good at what they do. I’m very proud of them.”