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Keeping the fire lit: Rural fire departments struggle to keep rosters full

REGIONAL -- Keeping a full roster at many volunteer fire departments around the area is getting increasingly difficult, departments that serve a variety of sized cities agree.

REGIONAL - Keeping a full roster at many volunteer fire departments around the area is getting increasingly difficult, departments that serve a variety of sized cities agree.

Whether a department’s roster is considered full at 20 members or topped out at 40, rural departments are battling a similar cycle of struggling to find enough new blood to replace aging members who retire.

That’s especially true in Round Lake, where more than half of the department’s current members have reached or exceeded a 20-year service requirement to tap into some retirement funds they’ve earned. Already four members short of an ideal  20-member force, that poses concern for Fire Chief Mike Smith.

The struggle to find enough able bodies to fill a roster is similar in Wilmont, which Fire Chief Steve Joens said hasn’t had a complete roster in more than six or seven years.

Joens would like to see the current 24-member department boosted to 28. Even if that’s accomplished, the department’s got about six men that could retire at any time, he added.

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That’s an issue in Windom, too, says Windom Assistant Fire Chief Mark Marcy, who also serves as the department’s safety/training officer.

The largest department in Cottonwood County would like to have anywhere between 30 and 33 members. Five new recruits recently brought the roster back up to 30, but much like Round Lake and Wilmont, several retirements within the next year are imminent, Marcy said.

“As soon as we’re putting people on, more are retiring,” he said. “It’s kind of a struggle to stay up with that.”

‘The focus has changed’ There are a number of reasons for the member shortage. For one, In places like Round Lake and Wilmont, the pool of young people is shrinking.

“I’d sure like to get somebody that is 25, married and owns a house,” Joens said. “Then you figure they might stick around for a while, but with the economy the way it is, they gotta go where their job is.”

Joens said the department could once rely upon businessmen in the town to volunteer on the fire department. But with the number of businesses in town declining and the remaining ones with members already on the department over 60 years old, there’s an evident shortage.

“Most don’t have a job here during the day, and that’s where we’re the shortest,” he said, adding that he’s thankful for a couple of bosses that allow some of his members to take off from work in Worthington in the event the department gets paged to a severe house fire. Thankfully, he added, there haven’t been many of those.

Of Round Lake’s 16 members, only three to five are in town during any given day, Smith said.

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“So if we have some type of fire, everybody is working out of town,” he added.

While those struggles are more unique to the smaller departments, Windom and Worthington’s departments also face recruitment challenges.

According to Worthington Fire Chief Rick von Holdt, based on its coverage area, the Worthington Fire Department could justify needing as many as 44 members, but he considers the department’s current 36-member force fully staffed.

“I’ve always had some (applicants) to choose from,” von Holdt said.

While the number of applicants have exceeded the number of openings in recent years, von Holdt notices some of the same trends that other area departments face.

Marcy said the Windom Fire Department is experiencing fewer and fewer applicants for open slots. He attributes that trend to a change in culture and generational attitudes.

He said am increasing importance is being placed on family life and activities. While that’s certainly not a bad thing, he said, volunteerism on the fire department is taking a backseat.

Von Holdt agrees, saying that family time and activities has become more of a focus. There’s also a lot more activities and opportunities for kids to be involved in than there once was, he added.

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Neither von Holdt nor Marcy deny that commitment to the fire service can be time-consuming, particularly within the first two years undergoing training.

According to von Holdt, a Minnesota West Community and Technical College fire/rescue instructor, it takes about 185 hours to complete the full training and skills program for new recruits.

But as both Marcy and von Holdt pointed out, being a firefighter isn’t limited to fighting fires anymore.

“It’s ice rescue, extrication, boat and water rescues, body recoveries and searches,” Marcy said. “Our responsibilities have grown so much. It really taxes the people on the fire department and of course their families, too.”

With extra responsibilities comes even more training, in the hopes that each member knows a little about a lot for whatever they may be called upon to do.

The trickle down effect continues, and comes full circle back to time and effort. And once members commit, each needs to respond to 50 percent of calls in a year to achieve retirement requirements, von Holdt said.

Considering all the time and effort required, the pay isn’t all that exciting. While the departments are considered volunteer, Marcy said some departments’ members receive a small compensation for responding to a call. In Windom, that amounts to about $15 per fire call and an hourly rate for trainings, he added.

“It isn’t a job you’re going to get rich with,” he said. “It seems to be that today’s generation desires to be compensated for their time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not like it was 20 years ago when you went to be a firefighter and you got paid little or nothing for your time.”

While much in the rural firefighting landscape has changed over the years, there’s one core that remains the same when it comes to fire service.

“It all depends what you want to put into it and making it happen,” von Holdt said, adding that he’s been blessed with having awesome members on the department. “They’ll be there when the 911 calls come in.”

Related Topics: ROUND LAKE
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