For many years, volunteer firefighters have been the backbone of emergency response in west county, but now fire departments throughout the region are having a hard time attracting enough volunteers and keeping them once they are trained.
Two all-volunteer departments in Graton and Occidental are looking at hiring paid firefighters for the first time, and Gold Ridge, which covers the rural areas west and south of Sebastopol and already has a paid staff, is looking at adding more.
All three districts have parcel tax measures on the November ballot, and almost all of the money they hope to raise will go toward adding paid staff.
According to local fire chiefs, a confluence of factors have made it harder to find and retain volunteers, including increased regulation, the high cost of local housing and increased call volumes.
The unintended consequences of regulation
“Before, there were no rules or regulations,” Occidental Fire Chief Ron Lunardi said. “Now there are federal, state and local rules and regulations. It takes 262 hours of training, then you are on probation for a year. You need 30 or 40 hours before you can even ride along, and you need 100 hours before you can go on a run to assist. That sorts out those who are serious.”
Lunardi says he has often been approached by those willing to volunteer, but when he gives them the paperwork required, they back out.
“People just don’t have the time these days,” he said. “It’s a big commitment.”
Another unintended consequence of mandating so much training for volunteers is that it puts them within shooting distance of becoming a paid firefighter.
Chief Sean Grinnell at the Bodega Bay Fire District, which went to part-paid, part-volunteer back in 1985, pointed out that once someone has a thousand hours of training, he or she is considered a professional and can then move onto a department that is willing to pay them.
“It’s a big investment,” Grinnell said of the money his department spends on training volunteer firefighters, who often leave soon after. “Not a lot of professions offer a free education like that.”
“I’ve lost a lot of young people to paying departments,” said Lunardi. “It feels like a puppy mill here.”
Chief Shepley Schroth-Cary of the Gold Ridge Fire District knows the feeling.
“We send volunteers to train first in the fire academy at Santa Rosa Junior College. We pay for their classes. They start out volunteering three nights a month and when done there, they continue to get ongoing trainingm” he said. “But, I have to say, even when our people leave us to move on to paid agencies we take pride in them. We turn out very well-trained people.”
The cost of high-priced housing
All the chiefs agreed that the high cost of housing in west county is one of the leading reasons for the dearth of volunteers.
Chief Bill Bullard of the Graton Fire Department pointed out that many of his volunteers start out in their teens or early twenties, and they live at home with their parents. After a few years, they are older, leaving home and starting families.
“Let’s be honest: housing costs have got so high around here, young families can’t afford to live here anymore,” Bullard said. “The cost of housing forces them to leave the area. We lose most of ours because they move out. Generally we can keep a volunteer three to five years.”
Schroth-Cary said the high cost of housing cuts into people’s volunteer time for another reason: they have to work long hours in order to afford a house here.
“It’s an expensive place for young people to live, and when some young family can get a home, they have to work long hours to pay for it,” he said. “Realistically, to afford a house here, you need to make around $200,000 a year — and that’s usually two people working. People have demanding jobs with long hours; some have long commutes.”
“West county is a bedroom community now,” Schroth-Cary said. “Most people aren’t at home during the day. Most people don’t work near where they live. They don’t have the kind of jobs they can just leave during the day, and by the time they get home, they’re tired.”
More calls crank up the pressure
Bullard said the increased call volume that all local fire districts are experiencing is also hard on volunteers. Graton, he noted, gets more calls than any other all-volunteer fire department in the county.
“Last year we had 800 calls. That’s double what it was 20 years ago,” he said. “We are expecting a 20% increase in the number of calls next year. We have to do something. We can’t keep asking our volunteers to leave work three or four times a day to answer calls,” he said.
All of the chiefs said that the increased call volume is due to west county’s aging population. In the Gold Ridge district, over 50% of residents are over age 65, and the number of calls the district has been getting has risen steadily for years. A majority of these calls involve medical emergencies, not fires. The same thing is happening in Graton, Bullard said.
The continuing importance of volunteers
Even if all three districts are successful in persuading voters to give the thumbs up for parcel taxes, they will still need volunteers, according to Gold Ridge’s Schroth-Cary.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of both,” he said. “The volunteers are the surge that gets out there to protect their neighbors in a major event like the Tubbs fire in 2017. The county needs to invest in encouraging and supporting volunteerism. Without our volunteers who got out there fast, I am certain that more people would have died in the Tubbs Fire, and more houses would have been lost.”
Schroth-Cary knows the value of volunteering. He started out as a teenage volunteer himself.
“It was part of the Scout Explorer program. You can volunteer as a firefighter. A lot of volunteers come to us that way,” he said. “After I was fully trained, I worked at CalFire then came back here.”
One of the ways Gold Ridge encourages volunteers is to pay a stipend for training sessions or for taking a “sleeper” shift overnight to help out the paid crew. Occidental does the same thing and has started its own Explorer program with some teens.
According to one of the Gold Ridge volunteers, Tonia Bello, “The greatest reward is knowing you are helping your community with your skills. It’s a gift in itself.”
Bello comes from a family of volunteers. As a teenager in 1989, she volunteered for Bloomfield Volunteer Fire Department, where her father and uncle already volunteered. Her mother was a medical volunteer with Bodega Bay Area Rescue, which used to provide the only medical first responders west of Sebastopol. After taking a break to have her family, she went back to volunteer at Gold Ridge.
“I had had EMT training but had to qualify again, and it was totally different and a lot of hard work the second time,” she said. “My teenaged son was in the Scout Explorer Program, and he volunteered and came home to tell me I had to volunteer as well because the department really needed people.”