It’s a trend across the United States. Volunteerism is on the decline, and it’s having an outsized impact on small fire departments in rural and frontier areas.
The result is not just fewer members but also an aging force at the same time training requirements are becoming stricter, according to John Day firefighter Ron Phillips.
About ten names are on the combined John Day city-rural fire department roster, Phillips said, but only three responded to one call earlier this year — and those who did were all in their late 60s. It got better May 2 when seven responded for a call to La Costa Road and Highway 26. The roster can go down in summer when some volunteers are working paid wildfire jobs, he said.
“Volunteerism is very difficult,” Phillips said. “The public takes it for granted until they need us.”
Phillips became a firefighter in 1968 when he was still in high school. It’s a family tradition. His father, Stan, became the John Day fire chief in 1951 and served 25 years. His sister, Mary Lou, also served as a volunteer firefighter.
Within hours of his father’s election, he was called out to a major fire on Main Street that destroyed the Chester’s Market and Sprouse-Reitz stores and crept into the adjacent Benson Hotel. Len’s Drug is now at that location.
In 1970, while still in high school, Ron Phillips responded to a tragic fire at a ranch east of John Day around Christmas time. A nativity scene had caught fire and a family of five died. Phillips knew the family personally.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s not a job for everyone, but it really does your heart good to know you’re saving a person or their property.”
In his second year, Phillips was at the end of a ladder manning a hose at a window during the Miller Furniture fire on Main Street in John Day. When his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) ran low on air, he switched positions with another firefighter so he could head down the ladder for a refill.
Moments later, a backdraft explosion in the building blew hot gasses out the window, seriously injuring the firefighter who took his place at the top of the ladder. The firefighter healed and the building was saved, Phillips said. It’s now the Outpost Pizza Pub & Grill.
“Firefighting is hard, dirty work,” Phillips said. “Calls come infrequently, but often at an inopportune time.”
Firefighters sometimes must respond to multiple alarms at the same time. Phillips recalled a day when four calls came together.
Hazards have increased with the growing use of plastics, synthetic carpets, paints and composite furniture in homes and businesses. Each can emit dangerous fumes when burning.
Firefighters also must keep up their training to maintain their firefighter rating, which is tracked by the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. That can require a commitment of 60-70 hours per year.
Phillips’ official records show 21 entries in 2019 adding up to 73.5 training hours. That included training on self-contained breathing apparatus, protective clothing, fire behavior, ropes and knots, forcible entry construction and tools, building search and victim removal, hose streams and handling, fire communications, building construction, orientation and ventilation.
In January and February, firefighters from John Day, Mt. Vernon, Prairie City and Monument traveled to Long Creek for training under DPSST instructors from Central Oregon and Harney County.
DPSST provided door and roof-ventilation training props, Phillips said. Long Creek provided ladders and Mt. Vernon provided an air tank cascade-refilling system. About 18 firefighters showed up for the weekend trainings, Phillips said.
“The DPSST instructors were impressed by the local response,” Phillips said. “We don’t have large numbers of firefighters here, but they’re very dedicated.”
Men and woman who want to become volunteer firefighters must live or work in the fire district and be at least 18 years old. They also must pass a background check, but they don’t need to be a high school graduate.
To learn more about volunteer firefighting, Phillips encouraged people to show up at a weekly meeting at the John Day Fire Hall on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. or call 541-575-1855.