Darren Jorgenson was making his way out of town to visit with family when his pager beeped. He turned around to see a massive smoke plume. He was miles away from the source of the fire, but he could tell it was big.
He rushed back to the fire station and boarded 95-foot ladder truck heading out to the call, the second of the trucks to leave. When they arrived at the source of the smoke, the Lighthouse Cove with all four sides of the condominium building on fire, Jorgenson assumed the role of pump operator.
The pump operator is responsible for the water supply running from the nearby fire hydrant to the hoses being used by firefighters. The job requires simultaneously monitoring several switches, nozzles, and meters. Jorgenson’s job was to ensure that the firefighters had the water they needed and the fire hydrant’s supply was being used at a sustainable rate. It was a delicate balancing act and Jorgenson managed to maintain the balance.
The Delton Fire Department would ultimately use 400,000 gallons of water. Firefighting efforts would go through the night, putting out smaller fires that sprung up from the remains. There were no casualties or injuries, only one close call with a firefighter getting knocked off the dock and into the lake when a fire hose suddenly filled with water.
Jorgenson got home the following morning at 9 a.m. It was the longest time he had ever spent in his fire boots. He was tired, sore, and in dire need of sleep. But he was filled with a pride and satisfaction in what he and his peers in the fire department had done.
“Some argue that was the largest fire in Lake Delton’s history,” Jorgenson said of the 2006 fire. Jorgenson has since become the fire chief of Lake Delton, and has leadership responsibilities in addition to the duties of a firefighter.
Those responsibilities can weigh heavily on fire chiefs in smaller rural fire departments, usually made up of volunteers. Finding new recruits, maintaining certifications, and replacing equipment can be major challenges.
Finding new blood
Jorgenson said about half of the people who quit the Lake Delton fire department say it is because of lack of available time.
“Because there is a nationwide shortage of available volunteers .. there are people that are staying on longer than ever before,” he said. “They would rather keep serving than retire, and no one is there to fill their seat.”
The National Volunteer Fire Council reported about a third of the firefighters in volunteer departments are over the age of 50. The number has increased for decades.
The hectic schedules of modern life can make it difficult for people to sign on to a volunteer fire department.
In addition to busy schedules, some people work jobs in different municipalities, commuting outside a fire department’s immediate area. Some fire departments have loosened the requirements on how far away from the station someone can work in order to get more recruits.
“Ideally you’d want everybody to (be) in the city, just to be close,” Kilbourn (Wisconsin Dells) Fire Chief Scott Walsh said. “It’s a disadvantage (to be) further away because you don’t make the first truck, you may not make the second truck. So then a year or two of that, you’re like ‘I’m not going to come down because I’m not going to make the truck anyways, so now I’m not showing up to anything.’”
Sauk City Fire Department President Tom Wipperfurth agrees. In the past, “more people worked in town,” Wipperfurth said. “The town businesses were a little bit more able to let them leave.” Wipperfurth called the recruit shortage something that is “affecting virtually every volunteer department.”
Mauston Fire Chief Kim Hale also faces challenges finding new recruits.
“People are looking for work,” he said. “Not just hit-and-miss work, and it’s getting to the point where employers don’t want to see their employees go.”
A family affair
Firefighting has long been a family tradition passed down from generation to generation. Many who are currently serving in leadership positions in local fire departments were first introduced to the world of firefighting by family. For Hale, firefighting is a multi-generational calling that dates back to his great grandfather. Former Reedsburg Fire Chief Don Lichte’s sons were all firefighters after him. This can make recruiting easier for local departments, as children are exposed to the calling of firefighting at a young age.
“We’ve got multiple-generation firefighters on our department right now,” said Reedsburg Fire Chief Craig Douglass. “And just had the son of a retired firefighter come forward the other day and ask me about applying. And I said ‘Absolutely, get your application in.’ We really encourage that, because the motivation is there … based on previous family participation because they saw their dad, they saw their grandpa, and those are the guys you want.”
In some families, service on the local volunteer fire department is so common the recruitment of future generations is presumed.
“I come from a family of firefighters,” Wipperfurth said. “My father was on for 30-plus years, two of my uncles, my brother, a couple of cousins.”
But smaller families and fewer individuals following past generations into the fire service means recruiting can no longer just be exported as a family responsibility. If fire departments are to offset the firefighter shortage, many of the new recruits will have to be the first in their families to sign on.
Attracting first timers
While the family tradition of service is a helpful tool in recruiting, it can also feel like a barrier to those who have no familial connections to the fire department.
“I think it is an intimidating thing to join out of the blue,” said former Kilbourn firefighter Scott McClyman, son of the department’s former chief, Bob McClyman.
Explorer programs are a way to attract new recruits who don’t have the family history of firefighting.
Mauston is currently working with their first such class.
“This year we started up an explorer group,” Hale said. “We’ve got five kids involved in it right now. If they’re kids that are interested in it, it’s just going to push them that much further to see. They get to use the equipment that is here during training sessions. They get to use the jaws, play with the hoses, use ladders, put on air packs.”
Hale says that eventually getting even one of the current explorers onto the fire department would be “a big plus.”
In addition to children who have no relatives in the fire department, Wipperfurth sees potential in another underutilized demographic of the population: women.
“There’s 50 percent of our community that we’re not tapping (into) right now,” Wipperfurth said. “And it would be great if we could get more women in the fire service.”
Wipperfurth anticipates the first few recruits will be the most difficult to persuade, but then it will be easier.
“It just seems like if you could get a core of two to three women to join and then pass it on, what the experience is all about… you’re basically joining a new family,” Wipperfurth said.
The perception all firefighters need to be big and strong is inaccurate Wipperfurth says.
“There’s jobs for everyone on the fire ground,” he said. “There’s something for everyone to do on the department. And it would be nice to get that message out there that we’re not looking for six-foot-four, 250-pound hulks.”
A changing future
Some departments have been experimenting with restructuring to have two or three full-time positions, and having a supply of volunteers around them. Lichte sees this as a possibility for local municipalities.
“As a result of this difficulty of getting people, a lot of departments this size are going to one or two or three paid people, full-time paid,” he said. “And then those people are supplemented by the volunteers. I wouldn’t be surprised in a few years, here in Reedsburg that could happen too,” Lichte said.
The expense of replacing equipment can be a major challenge as well.
“These trucks are very expensive, so we have to plan,” Jorgenson said.
One way of combating those expenses is fundraising.
“At the Reedsburg Fire Department we do a lot of fundraising,” Douglas said. “We have five major fundraisers a year.”
The Reedsburg department also owns and operates its own business, which focuses on fire extinguisher sales and service.
“We have three individuals who go out into the community and service fire extinguishers, and the money that is made with that business all goes back into the department to purchase equipment,” Douglas said.
Douglas says that over the last four years, the Reedsburg department has been able to put $100,000 toward their own equipment purchases, which results in savings for the community.
“We had enough money to purchase a brush truck and all the equipment (for it) and then donate it back to the community just based on fundraising and fire extinguisher sales and service,” Douglas said.
Fundraising and side businesses are two innovative ways to pay for equipment. Grants are another option. Sauk City’s fire department was just awarded a grant for self-contained breathing apparatus.
But grant writing can be a tedious, frustrating process. Especially for fire departments without anyone experienced in grant writing available. The grant awarded to Sauk City is the result of four years of work on Wipperfurth’s and assistant fire chief Mike Breunig’s part. Wipperfurth said the ordeal was mostly “getting denied the last three years.”
“The (departments) that truly need that money, can’t work their way through the process of writing one of these (grants), because they are extremely difficult to write,” Wipperfurth said.
Wipperfurth put forth the idea of a grant-writing class that could be made available for volunteer firefighters. This could enable the departments that need assistance in acquiring equipment most to actually get that equipment
“The amount of time that it takes to write this is just ridiculous,” Wipperfurth said.
The tradition of civic service is something that can keep drawing people in.
“My father always taught us kids that you can’t just take out of a community, you have to put back into the community also. And that was my way,” Lichte said.
Douglas agrees community matters.
“My spiel to younger people is giving back,” Douglas said. “What I tell young people today is you (have to) give something back, and you should be expected to give something back … It’s not exclusive just to certain people, I think everybody should be able to give something back, (like) volunteering at your church, there’s just a hundred different things.”
Coming home tired, sore, and in dire need of sleep, like Jorgenson did after the Lighthouse Cove fire years ago may be hard. But for many people, it is worth it.
“Historically the fire service’s mantra is ‘neighbors helping neighbors,’” Jorgenson said. “You’ve got good people that are doing what they can to help others.”