73% of Oregon’s fire departments reported a “moderate or significant decrease” in the number of volunteer firefighters over the past five years.
TILLAMOOK COUNTY, Ore. — When there’s a fire in Oregon, it’s often a volunteer firefighter who shows up. 94% of all fire departments in Oregon are either all-volunteer or a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters. But the number of people willing answer the call is dwindling. It’s becoming harder and harder to recruit and keep volunteer firefighters.
“My biggest concern is there’s going to be a day that I have to make that decision that we’ve got to let that call go,” said Chief James Oeder of Nestucca Rural Fire Protection District. “That worries me.”
Like most fire departments throughout the state, Nestucca relies on volunteers to save millions in taxpayer money. Roughly two-thirds of the fire department, which covers a stretch along southern Tillamook County, is made up of volunteers. Nestucca has 13 paid staffers and about 30 to 35 volunteers. These volunteers help respond to fires, water rescues and car wrecks.
“Probably 95% of our calls, we couldn’t do without our volunteers,” said Oeder.
Finding new volunteer recruits is becoming more difficult. 73% of Oregon’s fire departments reported a “moderate or significant decrease” in the number of volunteer firefighters over the past five years, according to a November 2022 statewide survey.
Recruiting volunteer firefighters has become more difficult because many people just don’t have the time. They have work commitments and can’t leave their jobs for a call. Often, young people have families and young kids to help take care of. There are also longer commutes as that accompany the rising cost of housing.
The time and training required to become a firefighter have also increased. Despite being unpaid, volunteers have the same training requirements as career firefighters.
“It is 120 hours of training before you can get checked off and finish getting certified as a firefighter,” explained Oeder. “That’s for anybody.”
And these volunteer firefighters must be willing to dash off to an emergency day or night.
Bill Slavens and his wife Ginger run a commercial dairy farm with 250 cows in Tillamook County. They both also volunteer as firefighters. Ginger wears a pager and carries a cell phone. When an emergency call comes in and they’re needed, Bill and Ginger drop everything and go.
“If it’s a big motor vehicle accident with extraction and stuff, we are all going to try and get there. If it is a structure fire — it is all hands on deck,” said Ginger.
Bill and Ginger explained that they like the social aspect of volunteering. The fire department is a community. It’s also exciting work, and they enjoy helping neighbors.
“It is just the self-satisfaction of trying to help take care of people in their worst times. That’s a good feeling,” explained Bill Slavens.
Bill, 64, is a captain with Nestucca Rural Fire Protection District. He’s been volunteering since 1985. Many of the active volunteers are getting older and close to stepping away. In Oregon, the largest portion of volunteer firefighters, 23%, are 60 years old and over.
“In this world today, people think they need to be compensated for everything. We don’t feel that way,” Bill Slavens explained. “We just like to go out and do stuff for our neighbors and try and keep everybody intact and healthy.”
Firefighter duties have also shifted. Volunteers are asked to do more.
The Nestucca Rural Fire Protection District covers miles of farmland, along with rugged forests and coastline. During the busy summer tourism season, there is congestion and often crashes along Highway 101.
Emergency call volume for Nestucca Fire has nearly doubled in the past decade. This year is on pace to set a record — 1,200 hundred calls for service.
Fire districts work together and provide mutual aid more than ever — even for small incidents. KGW spoke with various fire chiefs and representatives throughout the state who all admit they are stretched thin, struggling to recruit and retain volunteers.
Across the country, state and local governments are trying new tactics to entice new recruits, like offering stipends for training, instituting income tax credits and putting money into retirement accounts.
“Oregon doesn’t provide anything for the volunteer,” explained Oeder, who has created local incentives to try and attract volunteers.
Nestucca Rural Fire Protection District offers free firefighting training, and the cost of EMS classes is paid after completion. Nestucca also offers some online training courses, allowing greater flexibility for new volunteer recruits.
16-year-old Megan Mason is training to become a volunteer at Nestucca. She signed up to help after learning firefighters were desperately needed.
“I think it should be advertised more, as something fun and something available, because I had no idea this was an option,” said Mason.