Volunteering runs deep

Cooperation and dedication are hallmarks of the unpaid firefighters who keep rural areas safe.

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The end of summer in Walla Walla County brings the start of the wheat harvest. Combined with August's dry weather, the added machinery in the fields in often a recipe for fires.

While the city of Walla Walla has a paid fire department that handles emergency calls, the county's rural areas generally have an all-volunteer force.

"They leave their jobs, climb off their tractors, go to the fire station, pick up their trucks and go to where the fire is," said Patty Courson, the county director of Emergency Medical Services.

Courson oversees EMS training for the county. Because Walla Walla County is predominantly rural, a majority of volunteer firefighters are cross-trained as EMS personnel, allowing them to provide medical services far from the city's hospitals.

"There's a limited number of people," said Courson. "It's more efficient to have them cross-trained."

The volunteer model is common in rural areas throughout the United States, where emergency calls are less common.

"If you have an area that has 100-300 calls a year, it's very hard to justify spending $50,000 per firefighter," said Rocky Eastman, the chief of Walla Walla County's Fire District 4.

Walla Walla County is divided into eight rural fire districts, in addition to the mostly paid departments for the cities of Walla Walla and College Place. Each department has a chief who works part-time and is given a stipend. Their duties include overseeing training and incident command for their district.

Larry Hector is the chief for Fire District 6, which includes Touchet, and said he typically spends three hours per day on firefighting-related tasks.

"We do that as a part-time job," he said.

Often, the other jobs volunteers hold can be an asset while out in the field. Eastman, whose district surrounds the city of Walla Walla, said sometimes volunteers can put their day jobs to use.

"People bring their full-time experience outside of firefighting to deal with an incident," he said, giving an example of a full-time gas technician who responds to a gas leak emergency.

In spite of the fact they're not paid, volunteer firefighters must have the same qualifications and undergo the same training as their paid counterparts in the city. Typically, this means three months of academy training at night and on the weekends before starting the job.

Firefighters are also required to have continuing education, which happens a few nights every month.

Eastman explained that paid or not, firefighters have to be ready to meet the needs of their communities.

"We have to be trained to provide that service when somebody asks for it," he said.

The firefighters are a fairly diverse group with a wide age range. Eastman explained that many young people who begin volunteering out of high school or in their early 20s hope to move into a paid position in firefighting.

"In order to get a full-time job, you pretty much have to have a year or two of experience to even apply. It's getting that competitive," he said.

Volunteers in their late 20s and 30s tend to have other jobs. Many are business owners, which allows them the flexibility to respond to emergency calls. The average volunteer has spent about 10 years on the job. Eastman said many of the older volunteers are crucial to making sure operations run smoothly.

"We want to bring in some people who are over 40 because they've got a lot of maturity, a lot of life experience," he said.

With the driest parts of summer still around the corner, Eastman and Hector said they predict more fires aren't far off.

"I think we'll start seeing more fires as people are starting to harvest now," said Hector.

Eastman said the county's fire department is well-equipped to handle large fires, because of a system that allows multiple fire districts to respond. If one district has a fire that's too large for it to handle, it can call in additional alarms, which will trigger a response from neighboring districts.

"We all work together. If you need more resources, we will respond from the south end of the county to the north end of the county," said Eastman.

Courson said in many areas volunteer firefighting spans generations. Parents will bring their children into the station, and eventually the children grow up to become firefighters as well.

"It's a great environment to raise your family in," she said.

Courson got her start as a volunteer medic in Franklin County, where she worked for 10 years before moving onto a paid ambulance crew. She said women in her district often responded to calls during the day while men were out working.

"I was talked into it by several people," she said. "I had no idea this was going to be a career path."

Now, Courson said, volunteerism in Walla Walla County is declining. She hopes people realize the service that volunteer firefighters provide.

"A lot of times, we kind of live in our own world in the city. I don't think (people) really know the extent of what the volunteers do," she said.

Eastman agreed.

"The volunteers in this county are very dedicated. They're dedicated to providing the highest level of service to the people they serve," he said.

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