Volunteer firefighters balance work and family

CASSELTON, N.D. - With his farming equipment set on auto-steer, Tim McLean turns the pages of a fire and rescue magazine while planting crops. At any time, McLean's work could be interrupted by an emergency pager calling him to report for duty as...

CASSELTON, N.D. - With his farming equipment set on auto-steer, Tim McLean turns the pages of a fire and rescue magazine while planting crops.

At any time, McLean's work could be interrupted by an emergency pager calling him to report for duty as chief of the Casselton (N.D.) Volunteer Fire Department.

"Sometimes when you read the call on the pager, and it looks like something really serious, your adrenaline gets going," he said. "It's almost like every time the pager goes off, you know it's a disaster of some sort."

McLean is one of the hundreds of volunteer firefighters who serve Cass and Clay counties.

These volunteers play the same role as paid firefighters in career departments: They're the community's first line of response to an emergency. But the volunteers face additional challenges because they work in a rural setting.


From struggling to recruit in shrinking populations to responding to a wider coverage area where fire hydrants are absent, volunteer firefighters find a way to balance family and careers with training and responding to emergencies.

Rural response

Rural emergency responders cover far more square miles than do metro departments, so they must be quick and well-organized, said David Jaeger, who is governor for west-central Minnesota in the Minnesota State Volunteer Firefighters Association.

"It's just a lot more traveling to get to your fires than in a city," Jaeger said.

Rural departments operate under mutual aid agreements, which means neighboring departments are alerted about calls that might require additional help, said Lois Hartman, executive director of the North Dakota Firefighters Association.

"Cooperation is vital," she said. "That's what makes our volunteer fire service effective. They're able to respond to the emergencies because of the partnerships between the departments."

When a call goes out, volunteers respond and assess the situation to see if more help is needed.

Small emergencies such as grass fires are managed with fewer firefighters. A serious car accident or structure fire is a bigger deal, McLean said.


Casselton's 30 volunteer firefighters have responded to almost 70 calls already this year, but annually only two to three calls are for large building fires.

There are no fire hydrants in rural areas, so the fire departments need additional tanker trucks to haul water.

In the fire districts along Interstate 94 in Cass County, a majority of the calls stem from automobile accidents. Many of these departments have emergency medical services equipped to handle most injuries.

Community commitment

For the volunteers, finding a balance among work, family and the fire department can be a difficult adjustment, said West Fargo Fire Chief Roy Schatschneider, one of three full-time, paid firefighters who work with more than 30 volunteers.

Fire calls can start in the middle of the night and sometimes keep the volunteers at the scene until it's time to go to work in the morning, he said.

"Family comes first, jobs come second, and volunteer firefighting comes third," Schatschneider said.

Gary Schultz joined the Hawley (Minn.) Fire Department 24 years ago and now serves as chief. Schultz said certain sacrifices are made if an emergency interrupts family plans.


"There gets to be times where you have to leave a birthday party," he said. "A career firefighter has a schedule. That's the difference. We're on call all the time."

Steve Link joined the Casselton department three years ago. He previously served with a volunteer department in Glenwood, Minn., so he knew the commitment that comes with being a firefighter. With two small children at home, however, certain calls must go unanswered.

"There are times when the kids are in the bath or whatever, and you just can't go," Link said.

Shifting recruitment

With a shrinking and aging population, some rural communities find it difficult to attract young volunteers.

"Recruitment and retention is a big problem in the smaller communities," Jaeger said. "One of your problems is getting a firefighter and keeping him there. You're running short of new people because your younger generations are going to the bigger cities where there are jobs."

Like many of the cities surrounding Fargo-Moorhead, Hawley has become a bedroom community where many of its firefighters work out of town and can't make it to all of the calls. For major emergencies, however, firefighters must sometimes leave their jobs to respond.

"All the employers are very supportive of the fire department," Schultz said. "They understand, and it's never been a problem."


Schultz said that while other communities may have trouble finding recruits, Hawley has a waiting list of people who want to volunteer.

In an effort to boost recruitment, some North Dakota departments have started junior programs to train high school students. The students don't face the same hazardous situations as other volunteers, but instead provide a support role, freeing up more of the trained firefighters to handle an emergency, Hartman said.

No departments in Cass or Clay counties have junior programs, but they are becoming a trend in both states.

Taking time to train

Besides responding to calls, volunteers undergo extensive training and certification.

North Dakota and Minnesota do not mandate specific training for volunteer firefighters, so the departments set their own guidelines, Hartman said.

Most departments opt for certification, which makes them eligible for grants to supplement money they receive from taxes in their fire district, Jaeger said.

A majority of the training is done in-house by state fire school officials who travel to the departments and conduct certification courses, Hartman said.


Departments generally hold monthly training exercises to teach firefighters how to do car extrications with Jaws of Life equipment. They also practice fighting controlled fires they start in donated structures.

The training helps volunteers prepare for the unpredictable nature of emergencies, McLean said.

"We're not going to go into anything that's going to put us in danger," he said. "You know who does what, and everybody feels comfortable with what they're doing."

Schatschneider said his volunteers in West Fargo are required to meet the same level of training as career firefighters.

"The training is pretty similar (to career firefighters)," said Joel Hewitt, chief of the Moorhead fire department. "You take a look at a fire, and a fire doesn't know the difference between whether it's being fought by a volunteer or a career firefighter."

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