MISSOULA, Mont. - Last October, when Smith Valley Fire Chief D.C. Haas told NBC Montana reporters his department was short on volunteers, he pointed to the tip of an iceberg that's threatening the welfare and safety of many Montana communities. Montana's volunteer fire departments are falling far short on manpower.
Last year, Montana State University's Fire Services Training School trained 6,000 firefighters. That's more than half the estimated 11,000 members serving Montana. The effort fell far short of what fire chiefs tell NBC Montana is necessary to fill their crew list.
The problem isn't a lack of trainers. Quite simply, the problem is a lack of volunteers.
Haas says Smith Valley has eight volunteers, but he could use 20.
East of Missoula, the Clinton volunteers are dispatched from a brand new well equipped station on a frontage road along I-90. The community pays Chief Bill Tucker for 40 hours of work a month. He easily exceeds that workload in a week, and he gets the job done thanks to 16 dedicated volunteers. In an ideal world, Tucker would be take that number to 30 or 35.
In Missoula, the situation is different. Missoula Rural Fire is a mixed department. Half of the personnel are paid, the other half are volunteers. Chief Bill Colwell sent his crews on 2,200 calls last year. He has enough men but the roster is always in a state of flux. Since 2007, Colwell has trained 178 new firefighters. Of that, only 43 are still in the firehouse.
For some fire districts, the lack of volunteers has them facing a critical demand. Leaders worry if the manpower will be there in the event of a threatening wildfire or a medical emergency.
The U.S. Fire Administration has seen the decline since the 1970s. That's when economic pressures brought a surge in dual income families. Wage earners became hard pressed to find time for work, families and household chores. Volunteer firemen began pulling away. Time became a critical part of volunteer life.
Fire trainer Ed Burlingame saw the system under stress in other states long before it began selling over Montana. Now he sees it at every turn.
Burlingame tells us the volunteers he works with come to the job with a strong sense of community dedication, but they often burn out. Yesterday's volunteers learned on the job. Today, they're required to meet minimum training requirements. It's a matter of personal safety for the volunteers.
In addition, they're asked to deal with so much more than a burning building. Today's volunteer is proficient in first aid, chemical spills, house fires and wildland fires. Burlingame admits, it's a lot to ask of a volunteer.
In 2007, The Fire Administration commissioned a study to define the problem and search for a remedy. Lack of time ranked right at the top of the reason why volunteers are falling away. The study's conclusion: "From a management perspective, there's not much the organization can do to address this issue."
One thing we were told by nearly every department: The work load gets lighter when it's shared by many. If you are interesting in volunteering, the fire departments in our coverage area are listed by county below.
Anaconda Deer Lodge County