News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Rural fire districts need more volunteers

When Robert Gendhar graduated from high school in Hubbard, he thought he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

“I wanted to be an agronomist,” he laughed.

But then a few of his friends who volunteered at the local fire district convinced him to come to a meeting.

“I enjoyed the atmosphere,” Gendhar remembered, “and the unknown of what your days are going to be like. I like the problem solving.”

But most of all Gendhar – who eventually transferred to Mt. Angel Fire District before becoming a full-time employee in 2021 – likes knowing that he’s giving back to his community.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do,” he said.

But it’s not easy. The training alone requires a minimum of 120 hours to fight fires, with an additional 60 hours tacked on to attend medical calls. And, when it’s all said and done the volunteers – accounting for approximately 70 to 90 percent of most rural fire district’s personnel – don’t get paid.

“There’s just not a lot of glory,” Jack Carriger, Chief of the Gates Rural Fire Protection District, confirmed. “But it’s about wanting to help your neighbor.”

A volunteer with the Marion County Fire District for 10 years before becoming the Fire Chief in Stayton for the next 20, Carriger has seen his fair share of volunteers come and go and knows first-hand the challenges each of the rural fire districts is facing – but in particular he knows how difficult it has been for Gates where the number of recruits has continued to fall since the Santiam Canyon fire in 2020.

“They’re an amazing group,” he said, referring to the district’s 10 current volunteers, “but we’re challenged, and we’ll have more of a challenge in the next couple of years because our members are getting older.”

Also experiencing difficulties, the Idanha- Detroit Fire District recently faced “an almost 100 percent turnover of volunteers due to leadership issues from the top down,” according to Lieutenant Laura Harris. She added that thanks to the hiring of a Chief Fred Patterson and the appointment of a new board of directors, those numbers are finally going up.

“We’re doing a lot of rebranding and re-structuring,” she said, “and I, for one, am very hopeful for this ‘new’ fire district and its future. We’ve seen a steady increase in volunteers over the past year and a half. In the first quarter of 2022, we had a total of six volunteers. Now we have 18 on our roster. I believe it has a lot to do with good leadership.”

But good leadership doesn’t necessarily mean higher recruitment numbers, not when the number one reason potential volunteers turn down the job is a lack of time.

“And it does take time away from your personal life,” Gendhar agreed.

But that doesn’t fully account for why volunteer numbers are dropping. The time required to become a volunteer  hasn’t changed. What has changed is the time the average person spends away from home.

“I think society has changed,” Gendhar said. “Over the last 20 years we’ve transitioned into a bedroom community and when people get home, the last thing they want to do is have a second job.”

It’s made recruitment a real challenge.

“There are many reasons for the drop…” Brian Harris, the Recruiting and Retention Coordinator for the Stayton Fire District agreed. “Some examples include family commitments and increased career commitments. The financial situation we are currently experiencing is making it harder to provide for families.”

But he and Gendhar believe these challenges can be overcome.

“Every volunteer has a job and a family,” Gendhar said simply. “So, talking to the volunteers… it can help.”

In fact, taking a tour of the station and meeting with current volunteers are two of the best ways to find out what volunteering at a fire station really entails.

“There are more ways to serve as a volunteer in our district than being a firefighter or EMS provider,” Stayton’s Harris said. “We have an amazing support team. It’s made up of a diverse group of individuals who help in many unique ways. Some examples are serving food and drinks at our rehabilitation staging area during large fires, helping out at special events and fundraisers, using photography and drone skills for media projects, administrative assistance and helping with emergency vehicle and building maintenance… have a specific skillset and want to volunteer? Join our team.”

“There really is a spot for almost everybody,” Silverton Fire District’s Assistant Training Officer and Volunteer Coordinator Daniel Brown echoed.

But there is one caveat – every person who volunteers must be a team player.

“It’s absolutely required,” Brown said. “Because every single aspect is a team effort.”

Which is perhaps why, without fail, those speaking on behalf of the fire districts referred to their coworkers as family.

“Everyone’s welcome,” Silverton Assistant Chief, Keith Veit, explained. “We get people sitting at this table that are polar opposites- and there are very few places that can happen. But people come together regardless of every factor. As long as they want to support the mission, they’re welcome here.”

It has a lot to do with trust, a factor Veit said is implicit to the job, which requires responders to assist people often on their very worst day.

“There’s not a person in this organization I wouldn’t trust,” he said unhesitatingly. “And I’d like to feel they think the same about me.” 

“We’ve always been a volunteer agency,” Laura Harris said of the Idanha-Detroit station’s history, which includes her father, a volunteer for more than 20 years. “Occasionally our district will receive a staffing grant for temporary staff, but those grants eventually always run out.”

In other words, the funding for rural fire districts does not cover the cost of a fully funded staff and it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon, even as the number of people in the districts and, in some cases, the area each district covers, continues to increase.

“Over the years, the [Stayton Fire District] has evolved and grown from the ‘Fire Protection Engine Company No. 1’ to ‘The Stayton Rural Fire Protection District’ which includes four fire stations and stretches 107 square miles,” Brian Harris said.

Similarly, Idanha-Detroit Fire District includes the area around both Idanha and Detroit, the Mt. Angel Fire District is in partnership with Monitor and the Silverton Fire District recently grew to encompass Scotts Mills.

“And there are more calls now,” Mt. Angel’s Publicity and Information Officer John Rossi said. “Last year we had 671 and right now [in October 2023] we’re at 659.”

It’s a situation that has everyone concerned.

“Without strong supports, the whole structure collapses,” Laura Harris said. She began volunteering when she learned the Idanha-Detroit District was “hurting for volunteers.”

“Most people think of the chief as the most important person at the fire district, but those who are in the field getting their hands dirty are what makes or breaks an organization. Having strong leadership is vital, but so is having strong followers,” who want nothing more than to help their fellow first responders and the community, she added.

“Those individuals volunteering with us, you know they want to be there,” Gendhar said. “That person coming to help you, they’re doing it because they want to be there.”

And the districts want them to be there as well, which is why they take recruitment seriously, holding community events, putting up billboards, utilizing social media and even – in the case of the Silverton Fire District – supporting Silverton High School’s Career and Technical Education program.

“We loan them equipment and they use our facility,” Veit said.

And they offer internships to students in Chemeketa’s Fire Protection program.

“They don’t have to worry about full-time employment and housing,” Veit explained. In return, the station has two more overnight volunteers gaining valuable experience on the job.

With many volunteers retiring faster than they can be replaced, recruitment is imperative.

“If you have the opportunity to volunteer at your local fire district, please do,” Laura Harris urged. “The fire service as a whole is hurting for volunteers, and the best way you can help is by stepping up to that plate.”

Stayton Fire District

“Volunteer service with pride.”

Sublimity Rural Fire Protection District

“Volunteers proudly serving our community since 1912.”

Scio Rural Fire District

“Neighbors helping neighbors since 1888.”

Mill City Rural Fire Protection District

Lyons Rural Fire District

“Protect and save lives and property by providing the highest quality of… service possible.”

Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District

“To be a point of pride to the communities we serve.”

Gates Fire District

Facebook or [email protected]

“Help us help our community.”

Aumsville Rural Fire Protection District

“Fire suppression and EMS volunteers serving the residents and guests of Aumsville, Oregon.”

 Drake’s Crossing Rural Fire District

“Provide a professional service of fire protection.”

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