One of the last steps in the volunteer training process in Clallam County Fire District 3 is experiencing a real fire. The district bought a burn box to simulate a structure fire. Sequim Gazette photo by Jay Cline
Fighting fire with volunteerism
by MATTHEW NASH
Quicker response times and a high level of care are dependent on Clallam County Fire District 3's staffing numbers.
Recruiting volunteers is one way staff finds help for the district's seven stations.
"Volunteers are the most cost-effective part of our whole department," Fire Chief Steve Vogel said. "We operate more efficiently if we have a good group of volunteers."
Staff is hosting a volunteer recruit orientation on Oct. 27 at the main station.
Steve Chinn, fire district volunteer coordinator, said they have about 12 people graduate each year from training.
In the past year, fewer than half of the people at orientation finished the program.
"People don't realize what it takes," Chinn said. "It's a big commitment."
Asst. Chief Ben Andrews suggests spouses and significant others attend the meeting.
"If the family doesn't support it, then it doesn't work out," Andrews said.
Why the need?
This year, the fire district expects to respond to about 6,000 aid calls.
On one shift, eight of the 33 firefighter/paramedics are on duty.
"There's a good possibility that we could have only a few staff available for a call," Chinn said. "It's gotten to the point that our district has gotten so active that we can't do it without volunteers."
The district has 69 volunteers, which is one of the largest in Western Puget Sound, but there is a high rate of attrition.
"We understand finding the time to do the training is hard but we have to keep filling the ranks," Chinn said.
Becoming a volunteer
After the orientation, potential volunteers go through a physical agility test, oral interviews with chiefs, medical exam and background checks before beginning training.
Beginning Jan. 5, potential volunteers train Wednesday and Friday nights and Saturdays through March for a total of 120 hours to become a Firefighter I.
Once graduated, volunteers are assigned to stations where 10 evening drills are offered a quarter and they must make at least five of those.
Additional training, like learning to pump water, drive vehicles and do water rescue, is available.
"Our district will train you as much as you want to get trained," Vogel said.
Careers start with volunteering
The average age of a volunteer is 28.
"Most of them are married, have jobs while balancing all this along with firefighting," Chinn said.
All of the district staff began as volunteers, which is customary in the state, Vogel said, who started as a volunteer for five years.
"I'd tell anyone who wants to be a firefighter they need to volunteer first," he said.
Volunteer Joey Giammalva started out in the district's Explorer post at age 15, fell in love with firefighting through it and is pursuing a firefighting career.
He's assigned to the Dungeness station as a volunteer where he's responded to basic medical calls and car wrecks.
"Volunteering is a lot of fun and a great way to peek into firefighting and see if you want to do it as a career," he said.
Across the demographic map
Giammalva might represent the younger crowd but several men and women are middle-aged and older, like Mike Gawley, 67.
He's been volunteering for a few years at the Dungeness Station where he mostly has responded to medical calls and fires. He also has his Emergency Medical Technician certification.
"It's really helped my retirement stay active," Gawley said. "It's hard to consider myself an old-timer because I feel like I'm in my 30s."
His most common aid calls are for elderly people, but Gawley said he's there to help and give back to the community.
"The fire department has a lot to offer me," Gawley said. "I like to be where the action is and working with the equipment like the Jaws of Life and things like that."
Some volunteers work busy jobs, too, like Doug Morrill, head of the Elwha Fish Hatchery, who is in the middle of the Elwha Dam removal project.
Morrill volunteers through the Blue Mountain Road Station. He said he felt a calling to volunteer after the last of his children went to college.
He's fought two fires since joining and is taking Emergency Medical Service classes at Peninsula College.
"Who wouldn't want to be a fireman?" Morrill asked. "Ever since I was a little kid, I've wanted to be in and drive a fire truck."
"It did inspire me to get back in shape," he said.
Allure of firefighting
The line between volunteers and paid staff doesn't seem to be drawn.
"I've gotten nothing but respect from veteran firefighters," Morrill said. "It's a great community, great group. We all work together."
Chinn said volunteers' reasons to help are all different.
"It's the red truck. It's giving to the community. It's the adrenaline. But one thing is for sure that once you get into the system, we become brothers and sisters and start relying on each other," Chinn said.
To sign up for the volunteer orientation, contact Chinn at 683-4242 ext. 109.
Clallam County Fire District 3 2011 recruit class orientation meeting 323 N. Fifth Ave., Sequim.
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27. Overview of recruit commitment with Asst. Chief Ben Andrews. Applications available with a week to turn them in. Call Steve Chinn at 683-4242 ext. 109 to sign up.
Reach Matthew Nash at firstname.lastname@example.org.