Most North Dakota communities rely on volunteer firefighters and it isn’t easy finding and keeping them. It’s not that people don’t care, but there are various factors that make it difficult to sign up.
The North Dakota Firefighter's Association has started a campaign to create interest in volunteering. The campaign involves newsprint, TV and radio and is funded through a four-year federal grant.
Being a volunteer firefighter requires a time commitment. It’s not just responding to fires, but taking time for training and maintaining the equipment used to fight fires. Because it’s a volunteer job there’s no pay involved. It also can be dangerous, as shown by the recent death of a South Dakota firefighter. A number of years ago three volunteer firefighters were injured battling a blaze near Wilton. They went through a long period of recovery.
In 1991, eight Sherwood volunteer firefighters were injured when they became engulfed by an oil tank fire. Two volunteers died.
North Dakota fires can pose challenges, whether it’s a prairie fire being encouraged by the wind, an elevator burning or a fire in the Badlands like firefighters battled this summer. Fires aren’t the same and you have to be trained to react to different situations.
You have to be willing to serve your community to do dangerous work for no pay. It’s not the risks that make it difficult to recruit volunteers.
Many people in rural areas commute to larger towns for work. This means they aren’t available on a regular basis to respond to fires, especially in a speedy manner. Depending on the season, some farmers may take other work like driving trucks. This can take them on the road away from their communities. The desire may be there to volunteer, but the ability to do so may not be.
Communities also are aging and there are fewer younger people available to volunteer.
There are about 10,000 volunteer firefighters who are members of 374 fire departments throughout the state, according to Rob Knuth, NDFA training director. Of the 374 departments, four are "fully career," meaning their members are salaried employees. Nine departments are "combination" where they have at least one career firefighter.
"Some departments have only 10 career firefighters and rely heavily on mutual aid (agreements with nearby fire departments)," Knuth told the Forum News Service.
Clearly North Dakota is dependent on volunteers when it comes to fighting fires. That’s why the North Dakota Firefighter's Association’s recruiting drive is so important. If there aren’t enough volunteers willing to respond to fires then everyone is at more risk.
We owe a big thanks to the men and women who volunteer to fight fires and can only hope that more volunteers will step forward in the future to protect us.