Volunteer fire departments strained in oil counties

TIOGA, N.D. – Volunteer firefighters getting burned out and either quitting or not responding to emergency calls is a growing concern for some Oil Patch fire departments.

The growing population and traffic in oil counties is increasing the number of emergency calls to fire departments, most of which are staffed with volunteers, said Renee Loh, executive director of the North Dakota Firefighter’s Association.

Some volunteers are quitting because they can’t continue to take time off from work to respond to more calls, she said. Many fire departments also don’t have adequate equipment to work with during emergencies, Loh said.

“It’s critical. It is critical,” she said. “This is not anybody crying wolf. This is the reality of North Dakota right now.”

To help ease the burden on fire departments and other emergency agencies, the state Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office is accepting applications for grants to help with training, equipment and facility needs.

The grant money for oil- and gas-producing counties comes from state taxes paid by the oil industry.

State officials have not determined how much money they will award during the funding round in March, but it is expected to be at least $5 million. Loh said that won’t be enough.

“I think they will be overwhelmed by the amount of requests that will come forth,” she said.


Spread thin

As of Wednesday, nearly $10 million in grant requests were turned into the Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office. Of that, nearly $4.5 million were from fire departments. There’s still more than a week until the deadline, and impact office Director Lance Gaebe expects to get most of the applications to consider the day they’re due.

The focus of this grant round is to bolster volunteer emergency services, he said.

“The requests that come from volunteer fire departments and ambulances who have seen increased activity will be given strongest consideration,” he said.

State officials will have a better idea in February of how much money will be awarded, Gaebe said.

Tioga Rural Fire Chief Jim McGinnity is among those submitting a grant request. He needs money to upgrade the department’s rescue vehicle.

The number of fire runs rose from 33 in 2009 to 76 in 2011, McGinnity said. Twelve of the 2009 calls were motor vehicle accidents. That number jumped to 42 in 2011, he said.

The influx of calls is burning out the volunteer staff, and some aren’t responding, he said. Trying to get to scenes quickly with the increased traffic in the area is also a problem, he said.

His brother, Dan McGinnity, is ambulance squad leader and said they often have to do their own traffic control because law enforcement is spread too thin.

“That can be really stressful for us, too, knowing that we’ve got to strategically try to park equipment to protect ourselves,” Dan McGinnity said.

Five years ago, people driving down the road would stop and many would offer to help when they saw the volunteer crews at work, he said.

“Now, you’re an inconvenience if you stop them,” he said. “We’ve had some friendly gestures waved at us at times … and we’re volunteers.”


Retention challenges

In Belfield, Fire Chief Kevin Hushka said the volunteer department has been lucky the number of calls hasn’t spiked. However, the lack of volunteers in town during the work day is a concern, with only a handful of people able to quickly respond in an emergency.

“At night, everybody is pretty much back in town, so then it’s not too much of a problem,” he said. “During the day, it can sure be a scary situation.”

New people moving to the area want to join the department, but the problem is they don’t always stay in the area after the department goes to the expense of getting them gear, Hushka said. Therefore, the department is more careful about new recruits.

“It’s not that we don’t want them,” he said. “It’s the expense of outfitting them and then they’re gone in a month or two.”

The job market is also an issue for career departments. Like other industries, western North Dakota fire departments are competing against oil field wages, said Minot Fire Chief CJ Craven, who is also president of the North Dakota Fire Chief’s Association.

The turnover rate of Minot firefighters has increased in the past three years, with six resigning in 2011, he said. The department is at full staff now, but about one-third of the firefighters have less than four years of experience, he said.

“We definitely can’t withstand the loss of employees at the rate we had in 2011 on into the future without loss of service,” Craven said. “It’s impossible.”


Travel concerns

Man camps that house oil field workers are another worry for firefighters because of concerns about whether they’re up to code and their locations, said Loh of the state firefighter’s group.

“They’re out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “A lot of the fire departments are having difficulty finding them.”

Travel time is also a concern for Dickinson’s fire department, which uses full-time staff and volunteers. Dickinson Fire Chief Bob Sivak said volunteers need to battle traffic to get to the fire station and then face traffic again trying to get to a scene.

The growth of the city and the increased distance of new structures from the fire station is also an issue, he said. Therefore, the department is looking at adding another station, as well as more full-time staff to bolster the primarily volunteer department, Sivak said.

He said the 20 percent increase in fire responses from 2010 to 2011 is taking time away from another role of the department: fire inspections. The work is prioritized to ensure health care, educational and other target inspections are done, but the rest are “behind the eight ball,” he said.


More help needed

More money is needed to increase and retain firefighters, Loh said.

Demand is up for rural fire departments to perform more technical services, such as extrication, structural collapse and hazardous material response, she said. Yet many volunteers don’t feel safe or secure due to the need for proper training and equipment to do the job, she said.

“If we lose one person to a line of duty death, that’s one too many people that we’ve lost,” Loh said. “That’s why training is paramount for the safety of them and for the other team members on their fire department.”

The state association is organizing new classes, such as an oil field emergency class, she said. The association also continues to seek grant funding and to work on recruitment.

If firefighters are going to do the job they’re expected to do, Loh said the state has to recognize there needs to be more funding.

“The risks and dangers that North Dakota rural firefighters face on a daily basis are greater than ever before,” Loh said.

One thought on “Volunteer fire departments strained in oil counties

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