Rural fire districts are burning for volunteers

When Phil Gridley was recruited to be a volunteer firefighter in Mountain Home during the late 1970s, he didn't get much time to train before he was actually fighting fires.

"I was on two days, and we had a major structure fire," said Gridley, who was told to put on an air pack and go. "We didn't even wear bunker gear then. I'd go in my civilian clothes."

Back then, volunteer firefighters around the country battled blazes and then bonded over beer at the station.

But times have changed, and volunteer fire departments are finding it harder to recruit and keep volunteers. Volunteer rescue crews account for more than 80 percent of the firefighters and EMTs in Idaho and, although emergency calls have doubled, the number of volunteers nationwide has fallen more than 20 percent in the past two decades.

Those who volunteer are more difficult to retain. Turnover rates are higher, and many don't stick with it longer than a few years.

The need is such that the Idaho Volunteer Fire & Emergency Services Association found grant money for producing multimedia ads to attract more volunteers to firehouses.

"If you're a warm body, we're going to look at you," said Minidoka County fire Chief Mike Brown, whose 50-member department dipped as low as 41 last year.

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