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Small Volunteer Fire Departments, Like Galeton, Colo., Look To Evolve

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Nathan Heffel
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KUNC

Colorado has a shortage of volunteer firefighters, nearly 3,500, according to numbers recently compiled by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News Even with statewide recruitment efforts underway, smaller agencies may have to find ways to adapt in order to survive.

One of those agencies is the small 14 person Galeton Volunteer Fire Department, northeast of Greeley. The department has been around since the early 50s and has always been volunteer driven.

Chief Brandon Brundrett, Assistant Chief JD Wyatt and Medical Captain Josh Smallwood each work 40 hours, or longer, a week at their day jobs across Northern Colorado. More often than not, they continue working late into the night at the small station, doing everything from fixing fire trucks to discussing recruitment efforts.

Chief Brundrett said the number of volunteer firefighters in the agency has steadily dropped from 20 in 2011 down to a 2014 total of just 14. It means his department, which serves a population of about 5,500, is not meeting National Fire Protection Association Standards.

"There are certain NFPA standards that say, you know, on a structure fire you have to have a minimum of 12 people showing up in the first 10 minutes," Brundrett said.

"I mean, our response time is 20 minutes to begin with, and typically we're running three to four people. We're not even close to be running what the NFPA states as a good structure fire."

Because of the constant struggle to maintain numbers, Assistant Chief JD Wyatt said sometimes firefighters on the scene of a call have had to make tough choices. He recalled a particular fire where he was working from a roof, and got a call about another blaze.

"And from that roof I could look 4 miles down the road and see the column of smoke," Wyatt said. "And there were only four of us, so even with the second page for help; nobody else showed up to help. We had to call outside the district for help."

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Credit Ryan Conley / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
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Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

The shrinking number of volunteers can be attributed to several things, but no pay coupled with an exorbitant time commitment is a main reason. That's made it difficult keeping younger qualified firefighters, like 23-year-old Medical Captain Josh Smallwood, on the roster.

"I first got kind of the taste of the fire department when I was probably 12 or so," said Smallwood.

He's exactly the type of firefighter the department wants more of. But Smallwood said his desire is to go career, which means he won't be with the Galeton department forever. Smallwood loves the station and the close knit family of firefighters who staff it, but he knows there are other opportunities out there beyond being a volunteer.

"It's very competitive and you really have to build your résumé," he said. "You have to have all the certifications and you have to have years of experience somewhere. And then you can go around and testing with agencies that have paid personnel."

The department is looking at repealing its rule requiring firefighters to live within the station boundaries, which means the agency could recruit recent graduates from the nearby fire academy in Greeley. They're also considering changing the $500 a month retirement pay out threshold from 20 years with the department to 10.

To become truly sustainable and attract more firefighters like Smallwood, Assistant Chief Wyatt said the station will be forced to evolve even further.

"I feel like it's inevitable, we're eventually going to become a paid department. When? We don't exactly know," said Wyatt. "And it'll be baby steps moving into it. I think the best thing would be to hire a Chief to handle some of the administrative and political issues."

A smaller station staffed with folks from area farms suited Galeton just fine in the past. But Chief Brundrett said more people are moving into the area thanks in part to the rise of the oil and gas industry and large corporate farms. Those people expect a consistent, top notch level of service.

It's something he said the department fully understands and strives to provide on each call for help.

"We do the best that we can," he said. "I mean, that's the biggest thing. We do what we can do, and try to improve our standards. I mean, it's not so much if we can keep up with paid departments or can we keep up with these bigger departments. It's can we keep up with ourselves? That's what we need to try to do."

Statewide, there are federal dollars being funneled to help recruit the more than 3,000 volunteer firefighters Colorado needs to meet NFPA standards.

For the three men in Galeton, their dream would be to increase the number of firefighters in the department from 14 to around 30.

Even they admit though, it'll be a challenging goal to meet.

Editor's Note: This post was updated to clarify the name of the National Fire Protection Association, in an earlier version it was referred to as an agency.

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