Mont. struggles with statewide emergency volunteer shortage

People who run the departments say those in their early 20s to mid-40s are less likely to volunteer than their predecessors

The Montana Standard

TROY, Mont. — All it took was hearing a dispatcher call out for an emergency medical technician and get no answer for Roger Gilligan to sign up as a volunteer EMT.

“I was listening to a scanner page and page and nobody answer. I said, ‘Gosh, I can do that.’”

That was 16 years ago, when the department had about 30 volunteers.

Gilligan, 71, is now one of only 18 who staff the Troy Volunteer Ambulance. Like him, other volunteers are aging. One is nearly 80. Several are well past retirement age, and not enough younger people are taking their place.

As Gilligan puts it: “We’re in deep doodoo.”

Just shy of a thousand people live in Troy, a town that’s become older and less populated after a closure at the nearby copper and silver mine in the 1980s. Though the mine re-opened in 2006, the owners announced in early 2015 it would shut down again. As the jobs leave, so do a lot of the 50-and-under population.

Across the state, like in Troy, volunteer emergency medical services and fire departments are seeing dwindling, aging ranks and a lack of people willing to serve. People who run the departments say those in their early 20s to mid-40s are less likely to volunteer than their predecessors, whether it’s because that age group lacks a sense of community service or they are just too busy.

“This new generation doesn’t have the same value system that us old graybeards have,” said Leonard Lundby, a vice president of the Montana State Volunteer Firefighters Association. “You can’t blanket it, not everybody’s like that, but that generation has a whole different value system.”

Montana doesn’t track volunteer firefighters as closely as it does EMS, Lundby said. But the National Volunteer Fire Council, which keeps country-wide statistics, puts the number of volunteer firefighters as down 12 percent since 1984, spokeswoman Kimberly Quiros said.

More startling, the average age of volunteer firefighters is up; in 2014, nearly a third of volunteers were 50 and older in communities of less than 2,500. That’s almost double the number from 1987.

Early this year, state EMS and trauma systems section supervisor Jim DeTienne told a legislative interim committee that the EMS system in the state is "very troubled."

“The current workforce is aging and retiring at an increasing pace, and the pool of new volunteers in rural communities gets even smaller,” a report he presented said. The state has 270 licensed EMS services and volunteers cover three-quarters of the state's population. There are 349 fire departments listed as past or current members of the Montana State Volunteer Firefighters Association's website.

In Troy, Gilligan partly blames the loss of volunteers on the loss of jobs at the mine.

“The cause is really no employment for young folks anymore,” he said. “It dropped pretty quickly when the mills closed down. The folks moving in are elderly and all retired. They’re here to relax.”

If Gilligan is lucky, he can get three people out on each of the 200 calls the the department responds to a year, but they usually run with the minimum of two. That makes things tricky if a patient in the back of the ambulance needs more than two hands attending to their medical emergency — someone still has to drive.

As Gilligan counts the number of uncovered shifts for July, he gets up to five before being interrupted by volunteer Amy Snow walking in the door.

At 34, Snow is one of two younger volunteers in the department. She’s been at it about three years and got started the same way Gilligan did.

“I would listen to them page over the scanner for a kid five times, and nobody showed up.”

The other young volunteer is Katie Davis, 30. She’s lived in Troy a decade. Her husband grew up here and moved back so he could work at the mine when things were better.

Snow has a background showing a drive to serve her community, like many who volunteer at EMS and fire departments. She was in the Army and then worked for an ambulance service in Deer Lodge. Davis is equally dedicated. She worked her way up to the top of the local dispatch office then decided she wanted to become one of the town’s few police officers.

Davis started training to be an EMT when her husband was out of work and could be home to look after their children. It’s easier for her to go on runs at night because there’s usually someone to watch the kids. Families and the commitments they require often make it difficult even for those who want to volunteer to find the time; Gilman’s wife has told him more than once she might as well be divorced for all the hours he spends volunteering.

Training requirements can deter potential volunteers, too. There’s four hours each month to keep up with an ongoing requirement of 48 hours a year for EMTs. On top of that, there’s a 24-hour course every two years. Volunteer fire departments each have their own rules, though many require around 30 hours a year to qualify for retirement benefits after 20 years of service.

Lundby said busy schedules make it hard to find the time for that.

“Volunteer fire service competes with Boy Scouts and Little League and football and all those other things that they do, all those other things that young parents might be involved in with their kids and don't have the time to volunteer.”

Ryan Taylor is the fire chief for the Fairview Volunteer Fire Department on the other side of the state in Eastern Montana. He has two boys, ages 12 and 15, and works for an oil field services company.

Once school starts, he understands as much as anyone the struggle his volunteers face when pulled in what can feel like a million different directions with work, kids, and volunteering.

“During the day I struggle to get five or six guys (to respond to a call),” he said. “I just take what I can get. As chief, what we want is younger people, more physically fit. But if you get them, they have other priorities. Everything is so busy with work and kids. Everything’s a challenge with their time.”

His department has 18 volunteers but can take up to 25. “We have room,” he said, adding nobody can recall when the department was at capacity.

“I've got two guys right now that are probably done within a couple years,” Taylor said. He lost a couple already when production slowed in the Bakken oilfields that brought so many to this remote corner of the state over the last several years.

The fire department he grew up around — his dad was a fire chief, too — was staffed by local business owners, ranchers, and other types of folks who had the types of jobs they could leave in the middle of the day to knock down a grass fire. In his department in Fairview, he doesn't have that. When oil field workers are on shift, they can’t leave the job site, and harvesting farmers can't break away either. Earlier in September, Taylor had to let a volunteer go because he hadn't shown up to a fire in six months.

When Fairview doesn't have enough volunteers to respond to a call, it puts out a mutual aid request that’s often filled by volunteers from Sidney, 11 miles west.

Fairview has 850 residents; Sidney, population 5,200, has a bigger pool of volunteers to choose from. There, fire marshal Rob Gilbert requires everyone who wants to volunteer to have their employer sign off their applications.

“An employer’s blessing is important,” he said. “And I’ve got good support from all the businesses in this town.” The department has been around 103 years and grew up with the town, Gilbert said, and the two support each other.

Sidney’s department is bucking the statewide trend. Gilbert has 30 volunteers in his department; the maximum the city charter allows is 36.

So what makes Sidney different from the rest of the state?

“I’m not sure why,” Gilbert said. But listening to him describe the department can offer some ideas. The application process might be part of it — when employers are required to sign off, it ensures volunteers are able to leave work for a call.

The Sidney department has a “good mix” of volunteers, Gilbert said — only four are over 50 years old, and two are pushing 60, including Gilbert, who will hit that age next spring. Even with the turndown in the Bakken, his department hasn’t been affected. “We haven’t lost a member because of the slowdown in oil,” he said.

He recognizes the struggles other departments in Richland County face, but said Sidney is a bubble.

“This generation is not as dedicated,” he said. “But here they are. I ask on the application why they want to be a volunteer; 99.8 percent say it’s to give back to my community.”

Gilbert is an employee of the city and county and draws a paycheck. His volunteers make $8 an hour when they’re on a call. In Fairview, volunteers are unpaid. Taylor sends a letter out to everyone in Fairview’s ZIP code once a year asking them to give whatever money they’re able to support the department. The city pays for insurance on the fire trucks and utilities at the fire hall, but the rest runs off donations. Luckily, oil field companies can be generous.

Volunteer fire departments save the country an estimated $140 billion a year in donated time, Quiros, with the National Volunteer Fire Council, said. While some departments, like nearby Glendive, have moved to a model with a few paid staff in town to supplement volunteers, many small districts can’t afford that.

“In those rural areas, there’s not a lot of people to support the cost, so it gets prohibitive,” Lundby said. “It’s very, very expensive to have paid people on the fire department. That’s beyond the reach of most rural areas.”

Lundby’s association has a grant to look at recruitment and retention of volunteers and try to find ways to educate communities about who runs their local departments.

“A lot of people don’t even know their departments are volunteer,” he said. “Without volunteers, there’s no fire department. You can have a truck, and you can have a station, but there’s no fire department without people to do the work.”

He’s tired of hearing all the reasons people don’t serve.

“I've heard them all,” he said. “They’re excuses. That’s what they are. Somehow we have to impress upon people that without participation there is no fire service.”

Copyright 2016 The Montana Standard

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