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Will we have enough volunteers?

Article by Clint Driscoll

Community – September 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine –

If you’re going to get injured in a traffic accident, don’t do it in northern Saguache County on a weekend.

With only one ambulance and eleven emergency medical technicians available, you could wait a long time for help. And that might have to come all the way from Salida or the Baca Grande, assuming that some EMTs are out of the area, and the rest are responding to another call.

You might also have to wait until your home is a pile of embers if there’s a wildfire — especially if you live in the ultimate Colorado dream home. Homes built of logs and wood in remote subdivisions where the trees are dense, the roads are steep, the deadfall if plentiful, and the water supply is limited, are virtually indefensible. It can take a long time to bring in machinery, water, and people to fight a blaze — and fires move quickly.

These facts are no reflection on the men and women who provide emergency services in central Colorado. They’re a dedicated group.

But their resources are stretched, and as growth persists, their resources may well be stretched even thinner.

All of central Colorado is beginning to feel the effects of growth. There are more subdivisions in wildlands with flammable scenery and limited water supplies. Traffic fills our two-lane highways, increasing the chances for accidents. Ambulance calls are increasing as more retired residents move in, and falls, heart attacks and strokes become more common.

But fire protection and emergency medical services (EMS) come mainly from volunteers.

If growth continues, what will happen to those services? Will volunteers continue to give their time? Will new residents become members? Or will citizens demand unrealistic service levels which will drive off the unpaid providers and make property taxes rise?

No one has any ready answers to such questions, but the fire chiefs and EMS directors in the area are worried about providing service, retaining their crews, and recruiting new members.

Yet mainly they worry because that’s their job. Right now, some officials are remarkably optimistic about the future. Others, however, have encountered difficulties. And part of our region has already begun providing tax-supported, professional EMS because of problems with volunteer turnover.

Paul Mattson, administrator of the South Park Ambulance District (SPAD), says his paid district was approved by a 60% margin in 1991. The 1,000 full-time residents, mostly in Fairplay and Alma, may not have wanted the service, but they were out- voted by the 19,000 part-time households.

“The mountain-man ethic of relying on yourself for everything doesn’t carry over to the people who build a retirement home up here. They expect a level of protection which is higher than that of the long-time resident,” says Mattson.

In contrast to South Park, Chaffee County property owners soundly defeated a proposed property tax increase of four mils intended to improve fire protection. Fire Chief Charles Abel and the board members of the Chaffee County Fire Protection District were hoping to raise an extra $150,000 annually to pay for new fire stations, apparatus, and related equipment to protect new residential developments.

The loss at the polls means the Highway 50 West corridor from Maysville to the top of Monarch Pass, Granite, and the subdivisions of Mesa Antero, Chalk Creek, Game Trail, Trails West, Three Elk, Four Elk, and Wapiti are well out of effective response range. Also old, slow, and overloaded trucks must remain in service. In Chaffee County, fire protection is at a minimum in newly developed areas, and volunteers face more danger because the fires have more time to intensify and spread.

On the other hand, some fire districts seem to be adequately funded with mil levies higher than Chaffee’s. Yet all of them feel the pinch of rising calls, and thus worry about whether they’ll be able to recruit sufficient volunteers. Although our fire protection districts have managed to keep a core group of long-term members who can be relied upon, new recruits aren’t always coming in — for several reasons.

PRIMARILY, MANY NEWCOMERS are older. They may be motivated and want to contribute to their new community, but they aren’t physically able to fight fires or care for and transport patients.

Dan Ogden of the Howard volunteers says he has no trouble finding willing hands once he explains how fire protection works in his area. “My concern is that most of my folks are over 45. I have a few younger ones, one or two, but they can’t go out on every call.”

The same is true for Chief Abel. “When the mines shut down and the railroad moved out, we lost our stable labor pool. Other than the prison (Buena Vista Correctional Facility), there just aren’t any big employers of younger folks…. I have about 48 people on the department and the average age is about 42.”

MANY YOUNG RESIDENTS are unable to volunteer because of economics. Most families have two wage earners and many members work two jobs. “We’re a bedroom community for the ski areas,” says Greg Shanley of Leadville-Lake County Fire. “When both parents finish work in Summit County, pick up the kids at day care and come home to Lake County, they’re too tired to volunteer. They need a life too.”

The time commitments involved are too demanding for many. Firefighting and EMS claim many hours of basic classwork and monthly training. State and federally mandated certification and liability concerns mean every volunteer must give up hours of personal time, and the costs for classes and seminars may come out of a volunteer’s own pocket.

Even when many individuals begin training, some drop out after they realize how much time is involved.

And finally — stress takes its toll. “We lose folks because of the stress of treating friends and family,” says Gerald Gray, board member of the Northern Saguache Fire Protection District and Ambulance District. People drop out because the intimate contact with tragedy is more than they can bear or because the responsibility becomes too great.

“I spend a lot of hours dispatching the ambulance,” says Peggy Taylor, at the Sugarbush Store in Howard and a driver for the Ramrod Ambulance District. “Sometimes it gets real stressful when someone needs the ambulance and I can’t get hold of responders.”

Jerry Carrier of the Deer Mountain Fire Protection District, which covers western Frémont County, sees another problem. “Not everybody recruits hard. I think a lot of new arrivals would volunteer, but they see the fire department or ambulance as a clique, a bunch of old-time, good ol’ boys who don’t want newcomers. That’s not true, but they may see it that way.”

Carrier and Dan Ogden both work hard at recruiting and have been successful in gaining new members. Charles Abel is forming a reserve force of volunteers who can’t physically fight fires but who will assist with driving, equipment care, and administrative duties. He hopes to free his active members for emergencies only.

What about ten years from now? Will rising property values, higher call rates, and increasing taxes drive out those who volunteer? In the Roaring Fork Valley, from Glenwood Springs to Carbondale and Basalt, growth and development are going on at a much faster rate than in central Colorado, yet the services are being provided.

Assistant Chief Bob Goodwin of Carbondale doesn’t expect development to be slowing any time soon. He reports, “We’ve been growing steadily and our fire protection is meeting the demand. We have two paid firefighters and need to hire some more to meet standards, but our level of protection is good using volunteers.”

According to Goodwin and Hunter Lovins of the Basalt VFD, both departments are able to maintain adequate numbers of firefighters who also operate the ambulance service. Because of the economy in the valley, there is a large population which provides a pool of volunteers in all age groups and income levels. “We have professionals, construction workers and business owners in our ranks,” states Lovins.

She said the mix of personnel is still heavy on long-time residents, but about 20% are new arrivals, and she believes that, as new residents settle in, more will volunteer.

Jim Mason, chief of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, has eight paid firefighters backed up by 40 volunteers. Since Glenwood is a regional shopping hub and has a year-round resort economy, there is a diverse group to recruit from. “We’ve been through some boom and bust cycles with Parachute closing down and Mid-Continent Mining being gone, but we’re stabilizing. We have a good mix of volunteers and retain them.”

CARL HASSELBRINK, director of the Chaffee County Office of Emergency Preparedness, believes central Colorado will keep its volunteers and improve its emergency service delivery. He acknowledges the EMS system is responding to more elderly residents, but attributes this to the general aging of the population as well as the influx of retirees.

He also noted that EMT’s are seeing a rise in calls on children and young adults which means there must also be families moving in. “So far, we haven’t had a problem getting EMT’s. We have all ages, income levels and length of time in the county among our crew members,” he stated.

When asked whether the expectations of new arrivals were unrealistic, both Carrier and Hasselbrink said they were not. “Once I explain the reasons for longer response times, most folks understand,” said Carrier. “That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get top-grade service when we get there though, and they do.”

Hasselbrink believes increased expectations comes as much from television as anywhere. “Shows like Rescue 911 demonstrate what EMS and fire services can do; locals, new arrivals and tourists expect that kind of performance. Within the limits of our resources we provide it.”

There is no doubt the members of the organizations are motivated. Many want to be busier. “When you put in as much time and effort as we do in training, you want to put it to use. You get worried when times are slow and you’re waiting for the ‘big one,'” said a Cotopaxi firefighter.

EMT’s agree, “You need to keep your skills up,” a Chaffee County Ambulance member said. “I would like to get a few more runs so I stay confident and know I can do the job. That sounds bad, but you need to practice skills like IV insertion and incubation.”

WHEN ASKED ABOUT the stress load, most said call-intensity was not at a level that bothered them. Firefighters interviewed respond to anywhere from one to nineteen structure fires a year plus numerous auto accidents and brush fires. The EMT’s sign up for shifts and can plan their on-call times.

But increased responses means increased exposure to infectious diseases like AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis; more danger driving to and working at the scene; or the risk of burn- out from more exposure to human tragedy.

“We want to keep the volunteers we have and recruit more,” said Ray Wright of the Jefferson/Como FPD. “We do that by letting prospective members know up front what the risks and time commitments are. That way we get those who really want to be a part of it and stick with it.” All the organizations form tight groups, or “families” as Abel describes them. They reinforce and help each other over the rough spots.

Chaffee County has developed a critical incident stress debriefing team which helps EMT’s and firefighters cope with the psychological consequences of responding to devastating emergencies.

So how will emergency services fare in the future? That depends upon how well the whole region plans right now, according to Dave Wright, past president of the Buena Vista Economic Development Corporation. If the area gets marketed only as a retirement community, without any economic base to attract young families who can afford housing, then volunteer services will be severely impacted.

“Face it, seasonal workers and low-wage service employees aren’t going to have a real stake in the community and won’t volunteer. Maybe a certain segment of the population can afford the higher tax rates to pay for professional services, but many can’t. Those that are here will leave, and middle-income folks will never come here.”

A mixed, non-seasonal economy is important for the region.

WHAT ABOUT THE PROFESSIONALS who can live in rural areas and make their living by telecommuting or those starting home-based businesses — the “lone eagles,” as Phil Burgess so romantically calls them? There are many moving into the area now. Will they join the volunteers or simply stay in their nests and demand service?

In the Roaring Fork they do join, and there is no reason to doubt they will join here also.

“When people first move here they may have urban expectations. They want that pothole filled now and the streets plowed immediately. They want to change the world,” says Hasselbrink. “But after a while they realize they moved here for a reason, for a certain ambience. The community starts to grow within them and they become an active part of it.”

Let’s hope that’s what happens. As one 59-year-old firefighter told me, “I spent 12 hours last Saturday chasing small lightning-caused brush fires all over the northern part of the county. Before that I was helping out when the chopper went down on [Mount] Huron and we had a big, three-acre brush fire at Mesa Antero between times. That’s busy, and I’m getting pretty old for this.”

Clint Driscoll is a new arrival in Central Colorado, freshly retired as a firefighter/paramedic from Aurora, Colo. When not writing or learning about his new home, he grows flowers for the deer to eat.