Volunteers Play a Major Role in State’s Firefighting Efforts, but More Needed

The Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association estimates that Colorado is short 3,500 volunteer firefighters in meeting national 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.

Standards for response times and for the number of volunteers who respond are set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

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 data show:

• At least 43 departments are completely within the Colorado red zone – the territory most prone to destructive wildfires. Twelve of those departments are made up entirely of volunteers and 25 are hybrid departments. The red zone departments protect more than 300,000 Coloradans.

• On average, all-volunteer departments took 30 minutes to muster six firefighters to a wildfire, while hybrid departments averaged almost 45 minutes to reach similar incidents with fewer than five responders, according to a state survey.

• The average response time to all fire categories was 18 minutes with fewer than six responders, numbers below recommendations set by the NFPA. A volunteer department in a designated rural area should send at least six respondents to an incident within 14 minutes. The standards allows for four respondents in designated remote areas. The majority of areas protected by volunteers in Colorado are considered rural or remote.

Like their career fire department 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.

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.

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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