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East Grand Fire District needs more volunteer firefighters

Stephanie Miller
Sky-Hi Daily News

In a valley where the number of dead tree stands grows daily, the number of volunteer firefighters to battle potential wildfires is dwindling.

In the fall, the East Grand Fire District did not conduct firefighter training classes for new volunteers because there simply weren’t any. Although the numbers fluctuate every year, said Fire Chief Todd Holzwarth, the fact that there are no new volunteers so far this year is disconcerting. The district currently has 24 volunteers; a more ideal number would be around 50.

In hopes of attracting more volunteers, Jim Pidcock, East Grand Fire District’s new training coordinator, has been tweaking some of the recruitment practices. For instance, there will be two firefighter training academies this year, and the first one starts in April, allowing for a two-month recruiting and application period.

By allowing more time, Pidcock hopes to have more success in signing up firefighters. Twenty-four volunteers is OK, but if a big fire hits and it takes several days to put out, those volunteers are getting worked and, well, burned out.

“If you only have 24 volunteers, that assumes everyone can drop what they’re doing and show up. But that’s not reality,” Pidcock said. “People get burned out quicker.

The point is to spread the work load around.”

Last year’s fire at Snowmountain Ranch/YMCA of the Rockies took about five days to get under control. Volunteers were called in from all over the county, but it’s not always possible for volunteers to take the week off work to “baby-sit a fire,” Holzwarth said.

And what if there’s more than one fire?

“If you have half the fire department out in the woods, and you get a structure fire, then you’re down half of your staff,” Pidcock said. “That’s assuming everyone’s around. You’re immediately behind the eight ball.”

Pidcock lives in Evergreen and was hired by the district a couple weeks ago.

Originally a firefighter on the East Coast, his background includes training chief in Evergreen and shift volunteer firefighter at Copper Mountain. He hopes to use his experience to bring a fresh approach to recruiting. One idea he wants to pursue is ski passes.

Pidcock hopes to approach Winter Park Resort with a proposal to offer some type of free ski pass to firefighter volunteers.

“Vail, Copper, Breckenridge all offer (free) ski passes at their fire departments,” Pidcock pointed out. “We still need to approach the resort, but it’s definitely an idea.”

Keeping East Grand all-volunteer

One of the district’s major incentives for training volunteers is to keep East Grand from becoming a paid fire department, Pidcock said.

If not enough volunteers are found, the district may be forced to hire paid firefighters, resulting in a substantial tax hike for residents. Holzwarth estimated one full time firefighter costs roughly $50,000 a year; hiring a minimum staff of 10 firefighters would add up to about $500,000.

“It’s not impossible ” we could be going that way if we don’t find enough volunteers (in the future),” Holzwarth said. “But our commitment is to keep it volunteer.”

Full time firefighters get a free place to stay

Another one of Pidcock’s goals is to boost the district’s residential program. The fire department in Fraser currently has two full time residents, but Pidcock believes that between the district’s three fire stations, there is room for eight to 10 firefighters, and perhaps more in the future.

Residents get all of the benefits given to a volunteer ” such as uniforms, training, a retirement pension program ” and a free room at one of the three fire stations. They also receive compensation for 24-hour shifts, and fire service-related tuition reimbursement at a local college or university.

All types can volunteer

The challenge in finding volunteers largely lies within the Fraser Valley being a seasonal community. But even full-time residents have a difficult time making the commitment, Holzwarth pointed out. Training, however, can be flexible around a volunteer’s work schedule, and whether they have the time to volunteer can be figured out during the recruitment process.

“Everybody’s got a full-time job. We try to make it as easy as possible, so people don’t feel like they have another full-time job,” Pidcock said.

It is, however, a commitment, he added.

“You have to want to be a firefighter enough. But people who want to kayak make time to go kayaking. There is a commitment level, but at the same time, if they want to do it, they’re going to show up and make time for it.”

Almost anyone can volunteer, he added ” size or sex doesn’t matter. As long as someone is over 18 years of age, in fairly good shape, and can meet certain physical requirements during the training activities, they can be a volunteer.

Some of the training includes lifting a light ladder, hauling a fire hose to the second floor and making friends with the fire department’s dummy, “Rescue Randy.” (Randy is a 200-pound mannequin used during training exercises.)

The training is fairly lenient, Pidcock said. It’s not something people need to be intimidated by.

“There’s not a ‘Superman’ aspect to this thing by any stretch,” Holzwarth said.

” To reach Stephanie Miller, call (970) 887-3334, ext. 19601 or e-mail smiller@grandcountynews.com.


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