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Short staffed: What’s changed?

Changes in the fire industry, society have led to shortage of volunteers

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If you go back two decades, there wasn’t much need for mutual aid or auto aid calls between local fire departments.

Former Tonica fire chief Rick Turri said it was almost frowned upon to ask a neighbor for help on a fire call.

“It was almost taboo to call another department. That was bad,” he said. “Some of the veterans thought we didn’t need to. The trend now is we’ve gotten away from that. I don’t think anybody anymore has that issue. We would much rather be called early and turn around then be there late and have a lot of work to do.”

Local fire departments have set up almost a web of protection with auto and mutual aid for fire services. And one reason for the increase in support is because there are fewer firefighters per department than there used to be, especially during the daytime.

The National Fire Protection Association reported there were 838,000 volunteer firefighters working in the United States in 1995 — its high point in the past 35 years. While the totals tend to fluctuate year-to-year, the number of volunteers had dropped to a new low of 682,600 in 2017 — almost a 19% decrease. And volunteers make up about 65 percent of all firefighters in the U.S., according to the NFPA.

Local chiefs discussed what has changed in the past few decades that now makes it harder to get manpower.

What’s changed?

Granville fire chief Ron Campbell: If you go back 20 years, there were mom and pop businesses in town and every mom and pop business would let a fireman leave work during the day and respond to a call.

Former Tonica fire chief Rick Turri: It was not unusual if there was a bad call if there were a few people at a business — they would put ‘Closed: Gone to fire’ and people just understood. Nobody got mad. Nobody got excited. It was just ‘We’ll come back when the fire is over.’

La Salle fire chief Andy Bacidore: I think the biggest issue is the decline of jobs in rural communities. At one time we had a good manufacturing base, which a lot of the volunteers were at one time working these factories or industry. And that declined across the country and contributes to a decline in the fire service.

Turri: And everybody was willing to get up and go do their job here. And then they would go back home and they we be a little short on sleep. But you still did it. Because we’re called at somebody’s worst day. We’re always there to help.

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Mendota firefighters douse the flames of the Witczak Garage fire on New Year’s Eve. Training requirements and other changes in society have made it more difficult for local fire departments to retain volunteers and find adequate manpower in the daytime.

Spring Valley fire chief Todd Bogatitus: There is a state law that if you’re late for work because of a fire call, you can’t be reprimanded by your employer. But if you start work at 6 o’clock and a call comes at 5, do you go to the call or do you just get ready to go to work?

Campbell: Most of the communities in Putnam County now are bedroom communities. Nobody is home daytime. There is nobody available to respond to the calls. That’s why it’s hard to get help during the daytime.

Bogatitus: Back in the day when I first started, there was a waiting list to get on the fire department and everybody wanted to do it. It’s tough now because the stuff I see is in the families where sometimes the husband and wife work opposite shifts because of daycare.

Bacidore: I also see two people working in the family. So you’re handing off kids from one parent to the next. Obviously you’re staying home and watching the kids. I see the families are a lot of active and the kids are a lot more involved, which means the parents getting involved as well — which is a good thing. But all those together I believe are creating the decline.

Campbell: 20 years ago, you played baseball in the summer, football in the fall and basketball in the winter. And today there is something for kids to do every day. And a lot of parents are involved in that and they don’t have time to volunteer.

Bogatitus: Travel sports — 20 years ago we didn’t have soccer and hockey and a lot of this other stuff. And now we’ve got traveling sports. And any parent that has children do traveling sports, it’s a huge time commitment. You’re gone all the time in season.

Mendota fire chief Dennis Rutishauser: In years past — I’ve been on the department for 40 years now — back then this was like the priority and you spend times with the kids when you can. But now everybody is family oriented. And it needs to be. You need to be with your families. But it limits our numbers.

Bacidore: Families are busy and it’s very difficult. And I don’t see it just as an issue with the fire service. I see it with all sorts of organizations and not-for-profit volunteer groups. But it’s hitting the fire service very hard.

Bogatitus: We try to recruit. We’re always recruiting. We get new people in all the time but you’ve got to pass a background check. Believe it or not, we’ve got pretty stringent rules on the background check. I bet you half our applications are rejected right there on the background check. We do physicals, drug screens for pre-employment. And then sometimes people realize they’re not cut out for it. Over the years I’ve had firefighters come in after a bad call and turn their stuff in. Or they just stop showing up and we reach out to them. ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ You know, ‘Hey, I’m not cut out for it. I don’t like what I saw. I don’t like the pressure and stress.’ We lose people that way too.

Rutishauser: I think some of it today is the amount of training that’s required in order to become certified, whether it’s in fire or EMS. For the people who want to take the classes, the classes are a lot longer now compared to what they used to be.

Tonica Fire.jpg

Tonica inspect the charred remains of a house in rural Tonica in April. Volunteers for daytime calls are getting more difficult to come by for area departments with less people working in town during the day. Employees may also not be able to leave work to respond to a call. 

Bogatitus: The training is huge. If you don’t meet your training requirements after a year you’re let go because we’ve got to try and enforce training.

Rutishauser: Right now I think it’s around 120 hours for the basics for the fire and then for the EMS we’re running roughly about the same. And usually those classes are at night time. Sometimes classes in the area on weekend to help out with people who can’t always make it. Training-wise, that’s never going to change. They’re going to throw more and more training on us. And probably down the line they’ll throw in re-certifications also. All we can do is keep going out there and asking for help and assistance and see where we can go.

Bogatitus: The call volume is huge compared to what it was with all the documentation. Even before I was chief, we used to run 35-40 calls a year. Now we’re 140 or 150 a year.

Campbell: And there is not as many home grown people as there used to be. The people that are imports — for lack of a better term — they just don’t have the same sense of community of someone who grew up here and has lived here and still lives here and is raising their kids here has. And part of that is a tradition too like if your dad was on the fire department, you’re on the fire department. Where if you move to a community where you don’t know anybody and your kids are busy with activities and you’re working a lot of hours, you don’t have that sense of wanting to help the community as much.

Rutishauser: I don’t think the public in general realizes the situation. They think if they dial 911 they’re going to get a fire department there. And you might get a fire department, but there have been other communities where we’ve had to go mutual aid to because nobody responded. I don’t think citizens in those communities realize, ‘Oh, there are no firemen here.’

Brett Herrmann can be reached at (815) 220-6933 or svreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SpringValley.

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NewsTribune Online Editor covering Spring Valley and Dalzell. Contact him at (815) 220-6933 or svreporter@newstrib.com

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