Recruitment is up and the average age of firefighters is down at the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in northeast Wisconsin. Many small, rural departments in the United States would throw a parade if even two young volunteers came forward. Having six complete their 60 hours of basic firefighter training would be worthy of fireworks, if there wasn’t a burning ban. For Wolf River, it bumps the roster of active members up to 19, and brings the average age down to less than 50 years old.
Fire departments that serve communities with populations under 2,500 have a higher percentage of firefighters who are over 50, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Ninety-three percent of those mostly-rural departments are all-volunteer services. I suspect there are gray-haired volunteers in about 14,000 departments in the United States that would be as happy as Wolf River to get younger volunteers.
The oldest member of this new recruit class is just 24. Three are still in high school, including Justin Emerich. His father, Alex Emerich, is the fire chief. His uncle, Donald Emerich, is a lieutenant.
“I’ve wanted to do this always,” said Justin. “I’ve been around the fire house since I could crawl.”
I don’t remember him crawling, but I recall many times when he looked like an eager puppy with his head stuck out the window of his dad’s truck watching everything that went on at the station.
Friends, Facebook & Little League
Like Justin, I’ve been around the fire house for years. I’m not a firefighter, though. My husband, Bill, joined the department in 1987. A friend (older by a generation or two) said, “I drive right by your place on the way to meetings — I’ll pick you up”.
“I’m self-employed, and I knew they were hurting for people who could respond during the day,” Bill says. “And there were some older guys still on the department who shouldn’t have been climbing ladders any longer. I really couldn’t say no.”
Some things haven’t changed much in 25 years: Most are influenced to join the volunteers by people already on the department.
“Ryan Brown got me interested,” says Brandon Helmer, who joined when he was 16. Ryan was assistant chief until he left the department because of work relocation. Ryan would post about training and the fire service on his Facebook page. Brandon would comment on Ryan’s posts. “Finally he said, ‘You should be a firefighter.’ ” Brandon won’t be allowed to drive fire apparatus, and his activities are restricted until he turns 18 this fall. But he’d been active in department training for a year before the firefighter class began last January.
After Brandon joined, his friend Travis Guy, also 17, thought it looked interesting. So he came to the department’s annual holiday open house last December and joined. An hour later, Travis had been issued turnout gear and Brandon had issued a “bunker drill” challenge. A short video of that race to put on boots, pants, jacket and headgear is one of the departments highest-reaching Facebook posts. They make it look fun.
Walter Zibell, 24, and Harry Zelek, 20, wanted to be part of the community after moving to the area from Illinois. So Walter and another friend, Josh Hess, 20, joined the volunteer ambulance squad and went through EMT training. But it was another volunteer position — coaching Little League — that led them to the fire department. A parent of a ball player, captain Mike Wild, and another neighbor, firefighter Michael Schulte, encouraged them to join.
It was a timely decision: They joined just before the Firefighter 1 class was scheduled to begin in January. And with three more enrolling, Northcentral Technical College added a section of the class in Antigo, Wisconsin. That meant these recruits and those from neighboring departments could cut the weekly round-trip for training in half, to roughly 30 miles each way.
What Firefighters Do
Training is a big part of what rural firefighters do. As instructors and officers remind their crews, fire treats everyone the same, whether you’re paid or volunteer. That sobering fact was reinforced by the deaths of volunteer firefighters at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion on April 17.
The volunteers on the Wolf River Fire Department protect the people and property in what is geographically one of the largest townships in the state of Wisconsin — 118 square miles of homes, cottages, farms, businesses, highways, forest and rugged river terrain. Members train to fight fires in structures, wildlands and vehicles. They also learn to assist emergency medical personnel at motor vehicle accident scenes. In our area, they learn to conduct search and rescue operations in the woods and on a whitewater river and to perform ice rescues on our many lakes.
With the decline in farming in our area, there doesn’t seem to be much call for silo rescue and other high-angle training to work on tall structures. But you rethink that when an unlucky deer hunter almost falls from his deer stand on opening day. Luckily, one of our members had high-angle training from his years on ski patrol. He was able to direct the rescue of a cold and anxious young man hanging by the straps around his toes.
When the pager tone sounds, rural firefighters leave their own deer stands. They brave icy roads, heat and humidity, and admonitions to “be careful” from family members who support their service but worry nonetheless. And they hope someone else will show up, too.
Five percent of fire departments in communities of less than 2,500 deliver an average of four or fewer volunteers to a mid-day house fire, the National Fire Protection Association says. (Bear in mind that it takes a minimum of four firefighters to safely initiate an interior attack.) Those who do show up leave their jobs and businesses to do a dirty, difficult, dangerous job for no pay. And they do it in full knowledge that tomorrow someone will probably joke, “So, did you save another foundation?”
Glad for Gray Volunteers
Before this most recent recruit class at the Wolf River department, the last two members to complete firefighter training were about the same age as my husband, who gets his first Social Security check soon. Both of those volunteers were still working. One of them completed training despite a two-hour commute to work each way. This winter he retired, which was cause for celebration among those who know how thin our manpower resources are during the day.
The recruit class of 2013 won’t necessarily solve that problem. Jobs take them out of the immediate area. Or they’re not allowed to leave school during the day. And after they graduate, more education and work commitments will probably take them away at least some of the time. With six new names on the roster, we’re in the same situation as when Bill joined the department: We’re hurting for people who can respond during the day.
So those graying volunteers are as vital to the community’s present as the new guys are to its future.
I hope the new guys find loving partners to settle down with here, maybe start families. But it’s hard to commit to service, or even training, when you have two working parents and small children.
Then again, Justin practically grew up in the fire station. I just hope 25 years from now, he’s not still asking, “Will anybody else show up?”
Donna Kallner, a self-employed fiber artist and teacher, lives near White Lake, Wisconsin, and is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary.