Western ND emergency volunteers burning outTIOGA — Volunteer firefighters getting burned out and either quitting or not responding to emergency calls is a growing concern for some Oil Patch fire departments.
TIOGA — 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.
[b]Retention challenges [/b]
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.
[b]Travel concerns [/b]
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.
[b]More help needed [/b]
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.
Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.