Media campaign seeks to bolster number of volunteer firefighters

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Posted: Friday, November 1, 2019 6:00 am

The North Dakota Firefighter’s Association has kicked off a statewide media blitz to convince more people to sign up as volunteers with the state’s 373 fire departments.

Ninety-six percent of the state’s fire departments, including Hillsboro’s, are led by networks of aging volunteers who will need to find replacements over time, Rob Knuth, NDFA’s training director, said Tuesday.

“It’s difficult for individuals to volunteer for an organization like their local fire department,” Knuth said. “They have full-time jobs. They have family and church commitments.

“And you never know when that pager is going to go off and someone will need assistance.”

The firemen’s association received a grant to pay for newspaper, TV and radio ads this fall to raise awareness about the need for more firefighters across the state.

The organization ran quarter-page ads in the Banner in October seeking volunteers.

Hillsboro Fire Chief Jamie Reed said his department has 40 members, although nearly half those are social or lifetime members who no longer respond to emergency calls.

He estimated the department has 20 on-call members, although he’d like to see that number closer to 25.

“We have a good core, but we would take more people, absolutely,” Reed said. “Of course, we’re better off than we were 10 years ago, when we had 10 or 12 people. We were pretty skimpy back then.”

North Dakota has four cities – Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot – with salaried career firefighters.

Minot has 45 full-time members while Fargo, the state’s largest city, employs about 110, Knuth said.

After those four urban centers, nine other North Dakota cities have combination departments with at least one or more salaried employees who direct teams of volunteers.

Ninety-six percent of the state’s departments are completely filled with volunteers, nearly 20 percent above the national average, according to Knuth.

He attributed the higher percentage to the state’s rural setting and the costs of having salaried firefighters.

Knuth said there isn’t a geographic corner of the state that’s worse off than another in terms of volunteers.

“In general, I’d say the smaller, rural communities have more of a demand right now,” he said. “The closer you to get to larger cities, the more of a customer base you have to pull firefighters from.”

He estimated the average age for a male firefighter in North Dakota is someone in his mid-40s.

Reed said Hillsboro’s roster may trend slightly younger.

“We’re probably in that mid-30s range,” said Reed, who has served as the city’s fire chief for 21 years. “There are some here who are around 30 and we have a few who are close to age 50 and above.”

Hillsboro’s fire department hosts training for volunteers once a month at the fire hall along Main Street.

Requirements for being a volunteer firefighter in Hillsboro include learning CPR and fire aid and getting certified for extractions.

Relatively new volunteers can help the department by tagging along to calls and traveling to fires in support vehicles until their training is complete, Reed said.

“There are a lot of places for people to help who are lacking the training needed on a call,” he said.

Hillsboro firefighters respond to roughly 35 to 45 emergency calls a year. Less than a handful of those calls are for structure or home fires, Reed said.

The city’s proximity to Interstate 29 results in a fair number of accident-related calls north and south of Hillsboro, he said.

Knuth said he’s hoping the recent ad campaign will generate more interest from volunteers interested in helping their local fire departments.

The North Dakota Firefighter’s Association has seen a decrease in the number of young people willing to serve their communities, which could lead to the closing of small, rural fire departments in the future.

“Being a volunteer firefighter is a benefit to your community. You’re the one who can render assistance to a family in need during maybe the worst time in their lives up to that point,” Knuth said.

“Being able to pull up at a scene and help someone through that, there’s no other feeling like that in the world.”

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