When you stop and think about it, it’s a wonder anyone ever signs up to be a firefighter or emergency responder. Especially in Montana, where there’s a lot of ground to cover and the closest fire station may be miles away, it takes someone special to commit to intensive training, irregular hours, and work that is both mentally and physically demanding.
The firefighters of the Missoula Rural Fire District, for example, train every shift and in every season, staging rescues from icy rivers in January and burning buildings in August. They are trained to rescue people in any situation, be it an overturned car or the bottom of a steep ravine. They respond to both wildfires and structure fires, as well as incidents involving hazardous materials, and they do so in urban, suburban and sparsely populated neighborhoods.
The district’s firefighters are also emergency medical technicians, and in fact, medical calls make up nearly half their responses. And let’s not forget their fire prevention and fuel mitigation activities. Or their regular child car seat checks.
To do all this, the district has only 42 career firefighters, but can also accommodate up to 12 resident firefighters and 20 volunteer firefighters. Regular volunteers serve a minimum of 24 hours each month, not counting their training hours. Resident volunteers work 12-hour shifts, usually in the evenings, and live at the fire station. They do not get paid, but they aren’t charged rent either and, if they’re students, the district can reimburse up to $3,000 of their tuition.
Sound like a good deal? Then hurry and sign up, because these days, the district is always looking for more volunteers. Earlier this year, in fact, one-third of its resident positions were vacant and more openings were expected as a couple more residents planned to leave. Residents serve for at least two years, but are welcome to stay longer.
Missoula, like many other communities in Montana, has witnessed a growing shortage of volunteer firefighters and EMTs in recent years. Locally, statewide and nationally, the ranks of firefighters and emergency responders are thinning. Fewer firefighters and EMTs not only puts a greater burden on those who remain, it also means longer response times for people in life-threatening situations.
The National Fire Protection Association’s most recent report noted that nearly 70 percent of the nation’s firefighters are volunteers, and 95 percent of these volunteers work in districts with a population of fewer than 25,000 people. However, the rate of volunteer firefighters has fallen from more than eight per 1,000 people three decades ago to about six per 1,000 people at last count.
Meanwhile, the average age of volunteer firefighters has steady crept upward, and now almost one-third of the volunteers in the smallest communities are age 50 or older.
Montana appears to be seeing the same patterns, which is surprising because the Treasure State is rich in volunteerism and civic involvement. The Corporation for National and Community Service regularly ranks the state among the top 10 for its volunteerism rate, and this year the Peace Corps ranked Montana third for its number of Peace Corps volunteers per capita.
Fortunately, a Senate Joint Resolution sponsored by Missoula’s Sen. Diane Sands promises to get to the bottom of this puzzle. SJ 21 calls for an interim study of emergency medical and volunteer fire protection services, including an examination of coverage areas, personnel shortages, training requirements and compensation, and resulting in recommendations for enhancing these services. If approved, the study would be ready to share with the public by Sept. 15, 2018.
Unfortunately, the resolution is still stuck in committee, and its first hearing was held just last week.
Montana’s legislators ought to be especially motivated to provide firefighters with some relief after the House Business and Labor Committee’s wretched vote last month to table a bill that would have allowed firefighters to receive workers compensation for serious illnesses – such as lung disease – they contracted as a result of their job.
That bill, sponsored by Hamilton Republican Rep. Pat Connell, would have extended “presumptive coverage” for these diseases only if firefighters met a strict set of conditions. Montana’s senators approved it on a vote of 33-14. The House committee, however, considered the financial costs too high.
Now, the least legislators can do for Montana’s firefighters is to approve a study that will hopefully result in meaningful measures to provide them some much-needed support.