First came the boat fire, a nasty affair with burning fiberglass spewing black smoke all over Devils Lake. The North Lincoln Fire & Rescue crews were just getting things cleaned up when another call came, this one for a structure fire in an out-of-the-way place. Then came the call for CPR, followed one by for a heart attack victim, and after that, a water rescue.
“We were like, oh my god, what are going to do next,” recalled Jim Kusz, public education, information & safety officer for North Lincoln Fire & Rescue District #1.
Not that these guys are strangers to hustling in the most stressful of situations. One Saturday alone, they responded to 13 water rescues.
But now it’s the fire stations that need help. They need volunteer firefighters, but people just aren’t signing up.
“Across the country, small, rural fire departments are struggling to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters,” Kusz said. “Here in the district we are at 27 volunteer firefighters. That’s down from 68 in 2007 and 43 in 2017. Even though we have a crew of three or four working 24/7, we are finding more and more calls start to get backed up. All these calls are minutes apart. You can’t just drop the patient and say, ‘we have fire to go to, stay here.’”
Last year, voters approved a levy allowing the district to hire 12 firefighters and a paramedic, but many days they are still short-handed.
Why? Time and money — two resources crucial to a comfortable life, but often in short supply.
“Back in the day, as little as 25 to 35 years ago, people worked one job and that one job only,” Kusz said. “Now people work three or four different jobs just to make ends meet. Twelve hours here, 20 hours there. They could be working 60 hours a week and still be having a hard time making it happen because the benefits aren’t there. The work is difficult; the training is intense. For the right person it’s a beautiful thing to do, but for many ... We have people coming up to us and saying ‘I can’t do this anymore. My wife or husband is angry. I’m never home anymore. I’m working two jobs.’ They don’t have the free time.”
And volunteer firefighting requires plenty of that.
“You have to meet standards and maintain certification. To be a firefighter — whether volunteer or paid, you have to have some of the same basic training and life safety skills. That’s a lot of commitment. And not only do you need the training, but the character. In most cases, you can’t have a felony on your record even to be a volunteer. No sketchy background allowed. It’s the same as if you were applying for a job. To be a volunteer firefighter is telling the community you are a stand-up person.”
The number of volunteer firefighters is so low, they had to cancel this year’s recruiting class after participants dropped from 13 to just one. It was the first time in 20 years, Kusz recalled canceling the class.
But even where the number of volunteer firefighters is holding steady, the number of calls is exploding, Kusz said.
“That is certainly the case in our district with calls jumping from 1,022 in 1997 to 2,371 last year,” he said. “Needless to say we have a huge influx of visitors. We don’t really have a high season any more. It’s almost like it’s year round. And we have more people doing extreme sports.”
“We do more than fight fires. That’s a model that started way back and it really changed the structure of fire departments. We go on surf rescues, we deal with emergency management, disaster preparedness. wildland fire, wildland fire management. So yes, we need a strong volunteer fire department. Otherwise, when we do have a big disaster, there’s not going to be any help here. That’s why I like to train citizens.”
For information on how to become a volunteer firefighter, go to www.nlfr.org.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.