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Utah communities struggle to find volunteer firefighters

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LOGAN — Some communities in Utah are struggling to find volunteer firefighters willing to respond to an emergency.

Journalism students at Utah State University went on numerous calls with volunteer firefighters over the past several months to find out why some departments are left shorthanded.

When thinking about firefighters, images of fighting a billowing hay fire or wildland blaze may come to mind.

"That's the glory shot of firefighters — 2 a.m., jumping out of bed, getting in the engine," said Jordan Bennion, a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the North Logan Fire Department.

However, he knows that isn't always the case. "In reality, a lot of the times it's to go sweep glass off of the street."

But regardless of the call, "Most of us would say there's no such thing as a small call because you have to be prepared for the biggest of the biggest," Bennion explained.

And yet each year, it's getting tougher for smaller agencies to be ready for those big calls. "Ideally, yeah, you'd have 15, 16 guys that could respond at any time," said Cache County Fire Chief Rod Hammer. "But it's just not the case."

Hammer coordinates 11 volunteer fire departments across the Cache County Fire District and one full-time department in Logan.

He says while that represents about 220 total volunteers, typically only about 30 of them are available countywide during the daytime hours. At a fire scene, that means instead of the three to four needed to operate an engine, there might be only one or two.

It can take another 20 minutes for help from neighboring towns to arrive.

"With the volunteer world, we have to rely on the other departments in the county to fill those guys in. One city just doesn't have the resources to do a full structure fire anymore," Hammer said.

It's a problem that goes beyond northern Utah. The number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has dropped about 12 percent in the past 20 years, according to a study by the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Where there were nearly 900,000 in 1984, that number was down to just over 788,000 in 2014.

The volunteers don't do it for the money. They often have to leave what they're doing — family, work or whatever — get into a truck and go straight to the scene. It's getting tougher to find people who are willing or even able to do that.

That's partly because fewer people have local, agriculture jobs. More families now rely on two incomes and jobs that require an out-of-town commute.

Adding to the challenge — volunteer firefighters have to train for six months before they're allowed in the field.

At 6 a.m. on a Saturday, some firefighters in Hyrum are checking hoses. "Ninety percent of our job is not glorious, just the grunt work that has to be done," said Hyrum Fire Lt. Mike LeFevre.

As these men and women point out, it takes a certain kind of person to want the job. "When the pager goes off, if you can respond, we take you," Kevin Maughan with the Hyrum Fire Department said.

Many of the firefighters agree that those who volunteer do it for only two reasons.

"First is to help, to give back to the community. And second is it's a rush. I love it," Bennion said.

Hammer says that's really the biggest incentive he can offer potential recruits.

"We get to go and help people on their worst day," he said. "You impact people in ways that you can't do any other volunteer service."

Volunteer firefighters save cities and counties the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year that it would take to have a full-time staff. Still, Hammer says local governments may have to come up with an alternative to that model to survive in the future. That's in the early stages of discussions with city and county leaders in the Cache Valley.

In the meantime, "If we're going to sustain and maintain the volunteer model, then people have to step up and be part of that," Hammer said.