Oregon fire agencies feel side effects of nationwide volunteer firefighter shortage

More than half of the 1.2 million firefighters in the United States are volunteers. (KATU Photo)

Of the 1.2 million firefighters in the United States, more than half of them are volunteers, spread across more than 27,000 individual departments. Roughly a third of the U.S. population is protected by mostly or all-volunteer fire departments.

They hold the fire lines and put their lives at risk to protect yours -- for free.

Some agencies, though, are in crisis mode.

A nationwide shortage of volunteer firefighters is growing, and departments in Oregon and Washington are struggling to fill voids.

Many agencies are reporting five or ten open positions.

Filling these vacancies is challenging. Volunteer positions are that, volunteer. In most cases, the work is unpaid, and firefighters must dedicate to several 12- or 24-hour shifts a month while juggling school, family and outside employment.

Rural agencies can't afford to pay everyone.

Canby Fire District Division Chief Todd Gary says his department staffs 25 volunteers, but he would like to add an additional five.

"30 is that perfect number," Gary said. "When that second call comes in or that third call comes in, it's vital that we have volunteers to pick those other calls off. We can't spread ourselves that thin."

About a dozen Canby firefighters are paid; the rest are volunteers. They help cover 54 square miles of urban and rural terrain.

"We have to have volunteers," Gary said. "There is not a choice."

Qualified, volunteer firefighters are becoming more difficult to come by.

Not only do volunteers go widely unpaid, they must pass thorough background checks, meet the same standards as paid firefighters, graduate from a rigorous fire academy and commit to lengthy shifts and training days.

"It is really tough right now to talk somebody into work for free," Gary said.

For aspiring firefighters, volunteering is a good way to become a firefighter.

"I couldn't be where I am right now without the time volunteering," Connor Briggs told KATU. "I mean, it's just what you have to do to get here."

Briggs spent three years volunteering for agencies in Central Oregon.

Two of those three years, he lived in a firehouse, volunteered 30 hours a week and attended college.

He moved to western Oregon, taking a paramedic job with Metro West in Hillsboro. Four months ago, he was hired as a full-time firefighter-paramedic at Canby Fire District.

"No doubt, it was tough," Briggs said laughing.

He has to balance school, firefighting, and a life outside those two.

"The training I got, the people I was able to spend time with, to learn how to do this job," Briggs said. "I couldn't be here today without the time volunteering."

Many departments have tried to incentivize or offer stipends, but Gary says the IRS no longer allows agencies to do that.

Some have gotten creative by making shifts more flexible and letting volunteers do smaller, more specialized jobs. Some agencies offer paid positions after volunteers complete several years of volunteering. While others offer to help pay for college.

Some agencies who depend heavily on volunteers, like Molalla Fire, hired a volunteer coordinator to help attract, hire and retain volunteers.

"Being a volunteer is very rewarding. It's the time that I won't forget as a firefighter," Gary said of being a volunteer before becoming a paid firefighter. "Don't discount what being a volunteer means."

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