Published online: Saturday, April 12, 2014 Print: Sunday, April 13, 2014
CENTRAL KITSAP — Gone are the days of volunteer firefighters arriving at a house fire and running inside, hose in hand, with little training.
Today’s volunteer firefighters must log more than 100 hours of training before they can respond to fires. That training continues after they are certified as volunteers, and in many cases increases when volunteers apply for career firefighter jobs. Whatever job a volunteer is assigned — from driving water trucks to medical assistance — the time required has steeply increased during the past two decades, and can infringe on those with day jobs.
But every agency in Kitsap County except Bremerton depends heavily on volunteers, whether as a pool for hiring or cost-effective resources in a time of shrinking revenue. While every fire department has watched its number of volunteers fluctuate throughout the years, volunteer firefighters struggled with passing certification after rigorous training at the Kitsap County fire academy last year. In 2014, the academy decided to offer just one course, currently ongoing, rather than the usual spring and fall sessions, to better focus on maintaining and growing a vital resource during changing times.
As nearly every agency in Kitsap knows, the cost of losing volunteers is one they cannot afford.
A COST-CONSCIOUS DECISION
A majority of local fire authorities’ revenue comes from levies for fire and Emergency Services (EMS), based on assessed property values which have been on the decline.
“We can’t afford to be an all-career district with the fixed budget,” said Dan Smith, North Kitsap Fire and Rescue fire chief.
Average salaries for career firefighters in Kitsap County ranged from $73,677 to $85,626 in 2012, while initial training and outfitting a new volunteer firefighter costs less than $6,000. Federal grants secured by a few Kitsap fire districts have defrayed that cost almost completely.
Volunteers also function as “reserve manpower” needed to cover large areas, said Force Tolar, Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue volunteer program manager.
“It’s really kind of hard with our resources to be everywhere,” Tolar said.
CKFR is focusing on combination stations — made up of career firefighters and volunteers — as the future of the district, Tolar said, adding that there are some stations in rural areas that will remain volunteer-only stations.
CKFR is not the only fire authority combining work efforts.
The Bainbridge Island Fire Department is a combined department, with volunteers and career firefighters working side-by-side. And four of five NKFR stations are combination stations. One station near Little Boston is an unstaffed station, where volunteers respond from home.
Bremerton is the only Kitsap County fire authority that does not use volunteer firefighters. The department covers a condensed, urban area where volunteers aren’t needed to supplement services, said Fire Chief Al Duke, and the department hasn’t had volunteers since the early 1900s.
While volunteers may be cheaper than career firefighters, they are difficult to recruit and keep, Duke said. And the cost of bringing them on doesn’t reflect investment made by career firefighters in teaching and preparing volunteers.
GRANTS ASSIST IN COST
Kitsap fire agencies have received more than $1 million in federal grants to beef up the size and training of volunteer corps.
FEMA awarded a four-year grant for nearly $500,000 to CKFR in 2012. NKFR and Poulsbo Fire are splitting a $500,700 grant awarded by the agency in 2011, also covering four years. The money goes entirely to training and recruiting volunteers.
Each fire district or department pays for every volunteer firefighter it sends to the county’s fire academy, and the grant helps to cover those costs.
The grants also help pay for physicals, certification testing, gear, uniforms, computers and marketing for more volunteers.
But the grants have not helped compsensate the volunteers, which each fire district does to a different extent. Volunteers from SKFR are not paid, although SKFR donates about $5,000 a year to its local volunteer association. Volunteers with CK and north end stations are reimbursed a small amount per shift and call.
In CK, the grant covered $144,000 for the bunker gear volunteers don while fighting fires.
Another $180,000 went to fund Tolar’s volunteer coordinator position, which the district created last year to bulk up the district’s volunteer program. As part of the program, career firefighter mentors support volunteers. Many of the area fire departments have mentoring programs in place to help keep volunteers engaged and connected.
RECRUITMENT, TRAINING INTENSE
The time it takes to recruit and prepare a volunteer is no small task, acknowledges Rob Law, CKFR training division chief.
He said a list of 50 potential volunteers, garnered through advertising or recruiting, can result in just a single qualified candidate sent to the county’s four-month fire academy, which all volunteers must graduate from. NKFR has its own academy.
Screening potential volunteers has become an important part of the recruitment process for fire districts. They require candidates to pass a written aptitude test, physical examination, in-depth background check and interview before being sent to the academy.
Even if volunteers pass a department’s screen process, there is no guarantee they will pass the certification test at the end of academy training. The certification, known as Firefighter I, is standard across Washington and several other states.
“(The test) is a signal, like a bachelor’s or a master’s. It has been tested and has credibility,” Tolar said.
Fighting fires requires more than brute strength. It requires math and science to understand how fires spread, how much water to apply, and how much steam and pressure will be produced when safely combating a fire.
Last year, only one of eight volunteer firefighters passed the standard firefighter certification after the countywide training academy, which is a joint effort by Kitsap County fire departments.
“The results were dismal at best,” Law said.
The course has been redesigned by academy instructors, all from local fire departments, to be more engaging and faster-paced to keep volunteers engaged, Law said.
Volunteers can listen to audio books, take practice tests online and watch lessons on YouTube before class. During class, students are able to clarify and ask questions about the lessons.
Instructors are hoping for better graduation rate this spring, when the next round of volunteers is set to graduate.
THE FUTURE FOR VOLUNTEERS
Despite the challenges of recruiting and training, volunteers serve another key function in fire districts: they are a pool to hire new recruits from.
NKFR has had at least 150 of its volunteer firefighters become career firefighters. And 33 of NKFR’s current 37 career firefighters started as volunteers.
Every one of Bainbridge Island’s career firefighters, except Chief Hank Teran, started as a volunteer.
Volunteer firefighters often enter resident or intern programs with a fire district or department. Residents live at a station, serving a certain number of on-duty shifts and assisting when they are at a station. Interns typically sign up for shifts alongside career firefighters.
Others are content being longtime volunteers, Tolar said.
“Not everyone wants (to be a career firefighter),” he said. “It’s not for everybody.”
South Kitsap Fire and Rescue has a number of volunteers who don’t even directly fight fires.
South Kitsap volunteers like Debby Oliver are part of an air support unit, which provides firefighters with new air bottles at a fire scene.
NKFR has about 30 volunteers, six of which can drive 3,000-gallon water trucks, known as tender trucks. Having volunteers driving the water trucks allows trained firefighters to focus on the fire when on scene.
South Kitsap Fire and Rescue also has volunteers who serve as chaplains. They often help career paramedics and EMTs, by assisting the family while aid teams work on a patient, said SKFR Chief Steve Wright.
In the north end, fire districts often rely on volunteer EMTs to help transport nonemergency patients. That keeps paramedics, who handle more advanced medical calls, in the district’s coverage area.
For Poulsbo Fire, a transport to Harrison Medical Center could take an hour and a half, said Kurt Krech, Poulsbo battalion chief volunteer.
In that time, the district would be without a needed paramedic. But with volunteers, the department can provide the same level of service.
Volunteers play an important role for Kitsap districts, and individual duties can vary. Read a few of their stories here:
Debby Oliver, South Kitsap
Ryan Orseth, Central Kitsap
Tom Curley, North Kitsap