State Fire Chiefs Say more Volunteers Needed to Adequately Meet Need

The Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association estimates that Colorado is short 3,500 volunteer firefighters in meeting National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) standards. That would require an increase of more than 40 percent to the present force. Training requirements, like this one at the Peyton, Colo., volunteer fire department, other time commitments and more issues are challenges to enlisting thost 3,500.

The Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association estimates that Colorado is short 3,500 volunteer firefighters in meeting National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. That would require an increase of more than 40 percent to the present force.

“Generally, all fire departments that have volunteers need more volunteers,” said Garry Briese, executive director of the fire chiefs association.

Like their career counterparts, volunteers are expected to respond at all hours of day and night, often over extended distances, and in all weather conditions. They face the same obstacles, inherent health risks and physical dangers. The difference is that they don’t get paid.

There are 198 all-volunteer departments in Colorado serving more than 450,000 residents, and an additional 137 agencies that are a combination of career and volunteer firefighters. These “hybrid” stations serve 2.2 million residents, and 33 of them have only one or two paid firefighters.

Firefighters listen to Lt. Mike Heckard at  the beginning of their weekly training session at the all-volunteer station in Peyton, Colo., on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014.

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Firefighters listen to Lt. Mike Heckard at the beginning of their weekly training session at the all-volunteer station in Peyton, Colo., on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014.

Taken together, volunteer firefighters protect about half of Colorado’s residents, with solely volunteer departments being responsible for about 70 percent of the state’s land surface.

A Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analysis of state fire agency records highlights the critical role played by volunteers, as well as the impact of shortages on response times and numbers of responders.

The Rock Creek Volunteer Fire Department, for example, covers about 350 residents in north Eagle County, and about 250 square miles. Volunteer fire chief Brita Horn said her department’s operations are critical, but with only about 12 total volunteers it’s difficult to muster a big response.

“The people who actually live here in this area, who can actually make the call, there are probably six to eight who can actually respond,” Horn said. “We are lucky to get two people to respond.”

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