Local volunteer fire departments seek new recruits to protect communities

Jess Tolman, the chief of the Vale Fire & Ambulance is looking for more volunteers to help beef up the ranks of his agency. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – Jess Tolman, chief of Vale Fire & Ambulance, is looking for a few good volunteers.

So is Eric Mechanca, chief of the Nyssa Fire Department.

Menchaca and Tolman oversee largely volunteer fire departments and they face the same problem: Lack of personnel.

Tolman and Menchaca said recruiting volunteers is a constant challenge.

“We haven’t found very many willing to volunteer,” said Menchaca.

Tolman can now deploy about 16 volunteers to a blaze. Menchaca oversees 14 volunteer firefighters. Menchaca said he would a roster of 25. Tolman said he would like “about 20 or so volunteer firefighters that are available 24-7.”

Nationally, volunteers make up the bulk of firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

The association estimated there are 1.1 million career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S. as of 2018.

Of that total, 33% were career firefighters while 67% were volunteers. About half – or 49% – of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. work in small, rural agencies that safeguard less than 2,500 people, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Small, secluded cities in rural counties such as Malheur depend on volunteer firefighters more than urban areas and they are often the first to arrive on the scene of an emergency. In some areas, rural departments provide the only immediate medical care.

A 2020 National Fire Protection Association report showed that while the number of volunteer firefighters fluctuated since the mid-1980s, overall there is a downward trend in part-time emergency fire enlistments across the nation.

“We are always looking for firefighters,” said Tolman.

For Nyssa and Vale there is no recruiting station to bring in new volunteers. Instead, the departments depend on advertising, social media posts and word-of-mouth to get new people into the ranks.

Often, men and women will join a local volunteer fire department because family members are already part of the organization.

Tolman said he joined the Vale volunteer department after a friend “talked me into joining.”

“It has been a fun volunteer job and I enjoy the service it provides and the brotherhood of the fire service,” said Tolman.

Tolman moved into fulltime fire chief slot about a year ago when Todd Hesse left to take a similar position in Rockaway Beach.

“The training you will receive with emergency services or fire, it will apply to your personal life. You will be able to provide safety and protection to your family against any kind of fire situation or medical situation,” said Tolman.

The shortage is firefighters is more acute as calls for service increase, said Tolman.

“I foresee the bigger Vale gets, the more calls we will have,” said Tolman.

Tolman said his volunteer firefighters are paid Oregon minimum wage when they respond to a fire and they are required by law to train 60 hours a year.

Tolman also said the ambulance crews are volunteer too.

He said once a person joins the volunteer fire ranks, they must attend four trainings where they learn “how to get hoses off engines and get them used to spray and water through the hoses. All of our procedures and SOP and stuff.”

“Once that happens we give them gear, then we have our actual online training course they go through and once they achieve that they can go out on calls,” said Tolman.

Tolman said the volunteer department meets every other Tuesday for two hours.

“So, four hours a month we do training for fire,” said Tolman.

Tolman said the department also sponsors specialized training on some Saturdays.

For Menchaca, low numbers are troubling.

“It does concern me. The more we can have on the department the more our chances of having a bigger turnout increases,” said Menchaca.

Menchaca said he uses social media such as Facebook and Instagram to seek new recruits.

“I also have a banner I hang up at the school fence,” said Menchaca.

Terry Leighton, Ontario Fire & Rescue chief, said his agency’s longstanding junior firefighter program made the hunt for volunteers easier.

“That has helped us a lot. We are blessed and have not had the trouble like some other places have,” said Leighton.

Youth 16 or older can join the junior program, said Leighton. Usually, he said, the youth who volunteer are already connected to the fire department through family members who currently serve.

“Some of our guys did it with their dads when they were firefighters,” said Leighton.

Now Leighton said his full-time and part-time firefighter roster includes 34 people. Eight of those, he said, are full-time and 26 are part-time.

Leighton said the drought in volunteers is a “national thing.”

“We are so busy nowadays. We have other priorities and you don’t have as much community commitment. People also work a long distance from their homes now,” said Leighton.

Volunteering to be a firefighter is a rewarding experience, said Tolman.

“It is an extremely great volunteer job, one where you get to help serve your community,” said Tolman.

Individuals interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter – and who are at least 18 – can contact the Nyssa Fire Department at 541-372-3800 or the Vale Fire & Ambulance at 541-473-3796.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]


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