- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

PRAY, Mont. (AP) - The 63-year-old chief of Gardiner’s volunteer fire department has this joke with some of his volunteers: You can quit the department when you bring a note from the coroner.

After all, Bob Kopland said he’s not burned out yet and neither are several of the other mature men who make up the department.

“Many of these younger people don’t seem to have the same sense of community,” Kopland said. “Or they’ve already left. We are kind of exhausting the volunteer pool. It’s a plague up here.”

The Gardiner Fire Department is down to about 20 volunteers, Kopland said. Their average age is late 40s to mid-50s. Several other rural fire departments in Park County have similar issues with fewer and aging volunteers. Clyde Park City Fire has seven to 12 volunteers, with several in their late 60s, according to Chief Chris Mazur. Calvin Sarver, chief of the Wilsall Rural Fire Department, said they have 17 volunteers, with at least eight who are older than 50.

Kopland said perhaps someone should rewrite Norman Maclean’s book “Young Men and Fire.” Now it’s become “Old Fools and Fire,” he jokes.

“Volunteers generally stay for the long term, but what we are noticing is the age of volunteers is increasing,” said Greg Coleman, Park County fire warden. “Almost half are over 40.”

Coleman, who is 48, has several older volunteers in his department, Paradise Valley Fire and EMS.

“We just aren’t seeing the young people,” Coleman said. “It’s tough. It’s economics. It’s very difficult to raise a family and do what you need to do to be a volunteer firefighter.”

At 79, Richard Johnson, a U.S. Navy veteran, might be the oldest volunteer firefighter in Park County. He works mostly as an engine boss for Paradise Valley Fire and EMS, and has an EMT certification. He said he’ll continue to volunteer “as long as I’m able.”

Johnson convinced his neighbor, 66-year-old Greg Lynch, to volunteer for the Paradise Valley department nearly two years ago. The men drove an engine together during the Emigrant fire and have workout regimes to keep them in shape: Lynch walks and hikes with a pack, while Johnson lifts weights and uses a small trampoline in his home.

“In all honesty, this is younger man’s work,” Lynch said. “But if I can be of assistance, then I want to help out.”

The trend in Park County mirrors what’s happening nationally. An article in a National Volunteer Fire Council publication says, “While volunteers are still the backbone of the system, their numbers are fewer than 30 years ago, and the average age of a volunteer is rising.”

The organization attributes the decline to stricter and wider training requirements and changes in society, like longer commutes and jobs that won’t allow workers to leave for a fire call.

Some volunteer fire departments in the United States are more than 300 years old, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer fire department, the Union Fire Company, in Philadelphia in 1736.

Volunteer departments have always been tight-knit, community-organized groups. In the past in some communities, every able-bodied person volunteered for the fire department.

But that’s changing, at least in Park County’s rural departments. People who move into rural areas from cities or other places often don’t understand the departments are all volunteers, and they sometimes don’t develop the deep connections to a community that would convince someone to join, Lynch said. Lynch is himself a transplant, but said he was moved to join the Paradise Valley Fire Department after the Pine Creek fire. He was 65 at the time.

“I felt a little tap on the shoulder or a finger in my back telling me to do something,” Lynch said.

When he asked Coleman, who also serves as the chief of the Paradise Valley Fire Department, whether he was too old, Coleman asked, “Are you older than Richard?”

In addition to fewer volunteers and current volunteers getting older, Coleman said the rural fire departments in Park County are facing other new challenges. Although they respond to only a handful of fire calls a year, volunteer firefighters respond to many medical calls and calls for other types of assistance. Some departments respond to several a week and are often the first ones on scene. Responding to medical calls means the volunteer departments have to have EMTs, a certification that requires more training.

“We are called more and more often to a broader range of things,” Coleman said. “And what that requires is more training.”

The wildfires rural fire departments respond to are burning hotter, and there are more homes and other structures near or in the forests that they are charged with protecting, he said.

“Now that we have people building further and further into the wilderness, we are getting called out more and more to put those fires out,” Coleman said.

Despite the challenges, Coleman said Park County is lucky to have a core group of dedicated volunteers. They are “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he said.

“When you join a rural fire department, you are joining your friends and neighbors to protect your community,” he said.

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