CB Fire Protection District adjusting volunteer program

Not as easy to recruit and train volunteers

By Mark Reaman 

The Crested Butte Fire Protection District (CBFPD) has long relied on volunteers for both EMT and firefighter support. But as the valley’s population has grown and gotten busier, the volunteer situation has declined. The CBFPD board and administration are now in the process of adjusting the volunteer program to focus more on a “Reserve Program” that relies on better trained personnel coming to the department with at least minimal certifications. That is due in part to stresses on staff, finances and resources.

“The major change is that anyone wanting to work for CBFPD (volunteer, part-time, and full-time) must now come to the program with some sort of certification (Firefighter I, Wildland S130/S190, EMT-B, A or P),” explained CBFPD volunteer coordinator Mike Reily in an email.  “Without a dedicated training facility and training staff, putting on annual classes for these certifications with groups willing to commit the time has been particularly problematic.  One day, we would like to get back to creating our own firefighters and EMTs but, doing so with our current resources is not feasible.”

Reily said there is no effective change to the volunteer program. Members wanting to continue to volunteer can. “The main difference now is many of our former volunteers are getting paid which better enables them to live here and work as firefighters/EMTs to serve their community,” he said. “Both volunteers and part-timers now fall under the Reserve Program guidelines where they are still an integral part of our well-trained responder team.”

CBFPD CEO Sean Caffrey added that numbers come into play as the volume of calls has increased. He said the department is updating the volunteer program to be a more encompassing “reserve program” that includes both volunteers and part-time members with similar requirements. Currently, the department has 32 members in that category with 21 part-timers and 11 volunteers.

“To take it to a high level, we staff five shift-based operational responders per day from the full-time crew,” he said. “That has given us excellent capacity to handle our regular level of ambulance calls, vehicle crashes, fire alarms, gas leaks and carbon monoxide calls quickly and effectively. The crew of five however, is not adequate for large incidents such as building fires.

As such, we continue to rely on reserve and off-duty members to help when those happen or when we get exceptionally busy. In the meantime, we use the reserve members to help us cover regular shifts and will often up-staff to six or seven people on days we expect to be busy. Having the reserve members participate as part of the on-duty crew on a regular basis is very helpful to team dynamics.”

Caffrey emphasized the logistical shortages as the department has grown. “We’ve had to make some recruiting adjustments to focus on new members who already have some training as our ability to build them from the ground up is somewhat limited as we are short on staff and training facilities for that purpose,” he said. “We hope to address that gap as revenue allows and our new station comes online. In the meantime, we think the current 32 reserve members will meet our needs.”

Caffrey said the CBFPD staff primarily live in the valley but not everyone can, given the shortage and cost of housing. He said 18 of the reserve members live within the district. Of the full-time employees, another 18 also live within the district boundaries. Another 14 full- and part-time members live within Gunnison County but not within the Fire District. Several of those are employed full-time by Gunnison EMS or serve with Gunnison Fire.

Reily said many of the volunteers have gone on to get hired as full-time or part-time CBFPD staff. “By my count, eight part-timers were CBFPD volunteers, and 15 full-timers were volunteer.” Of the current department 67% are current volunteers or former volunteers.   

Reily has also seen a shift in the demographic of who is volunteering for the CBFPD. “Reduction in fire/EMS volunteers is a national trend,” he said. “Some of those moving here recently have come with the needed certificates or have had the means to get them on their own which has been nice. At the same time, some volunteers and prospective volunteers have had to concentrate more on making a living or providing time to their families to make living here work. The math is fuzzy, but when we recruit, we know we aren’t getting the same number of volunteers willing to give up as much time as prior volunteers were,” he said.

CBFPD board member and former volunteer Tina Kempin said she wants to make sure volunteers remain a significant part of the district. “The volunteer program has long been a foundation of the CBFPD. Many current staff members of the Department are products of the Volunteer Program,” she said. “We should be doing everything we can to prioritize the volunteer program, and to keep that legacy going. Most CBFPD volunteers already reside within our District, which is beneficial for responding to large incidents, and also when there are multiple calls requiring additional personnel.”

Reily and Caffrey said that training and equipping structural firefighters is very expensive, while training and equipping EMTs is a little less so.

“Moving forward I can see this being the direction prospective fire volunteers will take to see whether they are truly interested in volunteering or working as part-time paid employees,” said Reily. “The audience we want to capture, and, the audience we have captured in the past, have been the locals willing or wanting to work for the district. For the structural firefighting side, making that happen, will require the proper training facilities and an instructor cadre capable of getting people trained and maintained to that Firefighter I level.

Properly training our firefighters and EMTs should be intensive, extensive and not the same as it was when we used to do it. The expectations of an all-hazard department should meet the public’s expectations,” Reily concluded. “The public should never know whether they are getting a volunteer or a paid member showing up at their door to make their bad day better. Our training should reflect that high standard and we owe that to our members and the public. When future reserve members show up at our door again, and when we are able to provide the quality training they deserve, we will put the Firefighter I class on again. For now, EMT and Wildland certifications are still an avenue to get onboard.”

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