VIFR works to recruit volunteers

Faced with a growing number of emergency calls and a shrinking volunteer crew, Vashon Island Fire and Rescue (VIFR) is taking measures to recruit more volunteer firefighters and EMTs in an attempt to improve the agency’s sometimes slow response times.

Chief Hank Lipe said strengthening volunteerism was has been one of his top priorities since he joined the department in 2008 — in large part because of what he sees as a dire need.

“Over the five-year period, our call volume has increased 35 percent. … The volunteer crew, to the best of my understanding, has been slowly eroding for 10 years,” he said. “We basically need more people to provide the service.”

Volunteer firefighters Chris Coley and Jojo Weller, who were hired in May as part-time recruiting and retention coordinators, recently outlined the department’s needs and set recruitment goals for 2011.

The VIFR board of commissioners approved Coley and Weller’s plan at its last meeting. Board chair Neal Philip said they are pleased to see the issue addressed. Philip said that while response times have not caused any problems yet, the crew should be beefed up before the response times become dangerously high.

“You should always try to have a good response time, and we do to a lot of places on the Island, but there are some places it takes 10 minutes to get to, and that’s too long,” he said.

Philip also said response in the case of a large emergency is a concern.

“If we have an unfortunate event where we have, say, a fire at the north end and we have a whole bunch of people going there, and 20 minutes later somebody has a heart attack in Dockton, it’s going to be tough to get someone there,” he said.

With input from department leadership, Coley and Weller determined that the department’s focus in the next year should be on recruiting volunteers who live on Vashon. Specifically, they would like to recruit nine on-Island and three off-Island firefighters and EMTs in the next year, to reach a total of 27 volunteers in addition to the 17 career firefighters and paramedics the department employs.

Assistant Chief George Brown, who helped Coley and Weller establish the recruitment goals, said on-Island volunteers ultimately prove more beneficial to the department because they don’t require housing, are often available to respond even when they are not on call and stay longer than off-Island volunteers, who rarely volunteer with Vashon for more than two or three years before beginning a career at another department.

While a system of set shifts for volunteers that Brown implemented in February has streamlined volunteer response and improved response times, he said strengthening the on-Island volunteer crew would assure that the department can adequately respond to large emergencies and multiple-call situations.

“If we have a big fire, I’m not going to get any of those people from off-Island in the time frame that I need to,” Brown said.

Recruiting additional volunteers would also lessen the demand on volunteers, he said, making them more likely to continue donating their time.

Currently, most volunteers are on call for one 12-hour shift every four days. If recruitment goals are met, volunteers would instead be on call every eight days.

“Every fourth day adds up a lot,” Brown said. “That’s 96 hours they’re committing away from their family that they’ll go on these calls.”

The position, he added, also demands that volunteers spend several hours a month keeping up on their training. What’s more, many volunteers respond to calls when they’re not on duty.

When Coley solicited feedback from current volunteers, he said some of them requested fewer shifts. “I do believe there is a small number of volunteers that are feeling the stress of the shifts every four days,” he said. “I have not heard of anyone who’s on the verge of quitting.”

Lipe agreed that the department should be proactive in retaining volunteers. “Based on their feedback, they have spoken very clearly that they have stepped up to the plate, but they want to spread it out some more, and I can respect that. … We are not interested in burning out people; that is not a good retention plan,” he said.

While goals have been set, those involved say recruiting volunteer firefighters isn’t as easy as it used to be.

“Across the country, volunteerism is dropping, departments are struggling to keep them,” Brown said. “Society has changed. ... Now there are a lot more (nonprofits), and everyone is competing to get the volunteers.”

Lipe said Vashon, which has one of the last departments in King County comprised partly of volunteers and partly of career firefighters, faces additional challenges in recruiting volunteers. “On Vashon the majority of people work off the Island, and it’s a very long day for them. Then they have family on top of that. And we’re saying, ‘Hey, if you have any time available we want some.’ That’s the biggest challenge,” he said.

Coley said that he and Weller understand the challenges and yet remain optimistic about recruitment. He believes there are many potential volunteer firefighters on the Island who simply haven’t been exposed to the idea of volunteering — some of whom are what he called the right kind of age “to volunteer in the fire service, 20- or 30-something.”

“But I don’t know if they’ve been reached out to in the past and understand what it is,” he added.

Coley and Weller plan to kick off aggressive recruitment efforts at VIFR’s open house next month and then hold periodic public meetings at fire houses around the Island to target what he calls pocket communities on Vashon. “We’re going to do some very targeted, geographically focused recruiting efforts,” he said.

At the same time, Coley said, he is realistic about the challenge ahead.

“It’s going to require a lot of effort; that’s why we wanted to do these goals — so we could have a measured focus on what we needed to do, so we could put a preponderance of our effort towards a specific population.”

Philip also remains positive, saying that if the department works hard to promote itself, it should achieve its volunteer-recruitment goals by the end of next year.

“But it’s going to take time,” he said. “Nobody’s thinking this will be an overnight solution.”

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