Philomath Fire & Rescue volunteers participate in an aerial rescue training exercise. (Photo provided by Philomath Fire & Rescue)

The feeling of satisfaction is real for Philomath Fire & Rescue volunteers.

A dad shares his appreciation for how medics helped his 5-year-old following a bicycle accident. A wife brings in a platter of cookies to the fire station after a lifesaving response to her husband’s cardiac arrest. A young couple loses their home to a fire and drops to their knees with joy after discovering that their aging black lab had been rescued.

The smiles on their faces … the gratitude in their voices … the knowledge that they’ve made a difference in their lives.

These fictitious examples might sound extreme but there are no doubt similar real-life stories that Philomath volunteers have experienced over the years. In reality, the local fire district needs to find a new crop of folks willing to contribute some of their time for the betterment of the community — neighbors helping neighbors in times of need.

Last week when Deputy Fire Chief Rich Saalsaa sat down for an interview about Philomath Fire & Rescue’s growing need for volunteers, he didn’t mince words. He wants the community to understand “what the reality is of being able to have the department function in a way that’s actually going to meet their expectation.”

Then he added, “We’re damn good at what we do at showing up when they dial 911 and what we’re looking for is to get depth of the portfolio and now we’re looking to ask our residents that may have not considered this being an opportunity for them to give back and to participate at the community level.”

Easy translation — Philomath Fire & Rescue needs volunteers.

“Somewhere along the line, something’s got to give — it has to,” Saalsaa said. “I mean, we can only cover so much with what we have.”

Philomath Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association President Andy Louden points out that local residents are needed to help offset the fire district’s budgetary limitations. The district in recent years has been unable to break through the barrier that keeps folks from volunteering to help provide a service that’s obviously valued.

Said Louden, “If there’s anyone out there that wants to be a part of this, we want them here.”

Saalsaa said there may be residents who have not heard about the opportunity or thought much about how they could help or contribute. In general, he said 18 hours a month is typically what they’re looking for people to volunteer.

Philomath Fire & Rescue volunteers could do a variety of tasks on an emergency response. (Photo provided by Philomath Fire & Rescue)

Fire district breaks record for calls in a year

The need has become increasingly important to the fire district during a year that has seen a record number of calls. Saalsaa expects the final tally to be somewhere in the vicinity of 950 by the end of this month.

To illustrate the personnel issues from an operational point of view, Saalsaa offers a statistical comparison of 2014 to 2022. Eight years ago, the district had 42 “pretty active” volunteers and three resident volunteers — most of the time, two of the three were at the station. The paid staff included the fire chief, deputy fire chief, fire marshal, three shift lieutenants and a part-time emergency medical services officer.

Said Saalsaa, “During the day, we had heaps of people … we had a very strong Monday through Friday.”

This year, the district has 26 volunteers and six resident volunteers with paid staff that includes the fire chief, deputy fire chief, a fire and life safety officer (that combined the fire marshal and EMS duties), three shift lieutenants and a daytime firefighter. The fire and life safety officer position is currently vacant, however, and those duties are being shared between fire chief Chancy Ferguson (EMS officer) and Saalsaa (fire marshal and public education).

In 2014, the district responded to 709 calls — 533 by medical services and 176 involving firefighters. Saalsaa said the number of personnel per call statistics for the year averaged out to 1.72 paid staff, 1.18 volunteers and 1.09 resident volunteers. An exceptionally high number could be seen with the average number of personnel on standby — 2.73.

Standby personnel are those available to respond out of the station to another call or to augment the current call.

“We are going to have approximately 950 calls of service this year, a 34% increase in call volume since 2014,” Saalsaa said.

As of last week, the calls broke down to 662 by medical services and 205 involving firefighters. When it comes to those average personnel per call statistics, paid staff is down to 1.56 and volunteers are down to 0.50. Resident volunteers have doubled in number so that is up to 1.97. The standby average has dropped all the way down to 1.2.

Although Saalsaa said those numbers “paint a picture of resiliency and our being able to continuously field all of the calls we do,” the bottom line is that the district is stretched very thin. Last week, for example, the district was on three calls at the same time — an engine company in one place, the fire chief in another and Saalsaa himself at a third.

“We’re not keeping up — that’s just the reality of it,” Saalsaa said. “Now is there any danger? No, because we have automatic and mutual aid agreements with neighboring departments and they will on our request come help us.”

Volunteers practice putting a patient on a backboard in a ravine. (Photo provided by Philomath Fire & Rescue)

‘Seasoned volunteers’ high on the wish list

Resident volunteers, referred to as RVs, are an important part of the equation and are typically college students who work in exchange for tuition reimbursement and a place to live. However, there is a high turnover rate.

“Many of them go on to be in the field either as paramedics or for a fire department or in private industry but an RV has a very short shelf life,” Louden said. “They take a lot of training but they’re always here — so it’s a good payoff.”

Saalsaa said that a typical RV stays for just under two years.

Louden said the availability of resident volunteers is not really an issue with plenty of candidates for those positions. The real need comes with volunteers in general — those who work toward a level of experience so they can contribute in a variety of emergency situations.

“We’re trying to find candidates that will stay with us and we can bring them up to higher levels,” Louden said. “We’ll always have the RVs but we need those seasoned volunteers.”

Philomath Fire & Rescue has three different types of volunteers — firefighters, medics and support. Most of the fire district’s current operational volunteers are trained both as firefighters and in emergency medical services.

Those interested in volunteering as a firefighter would need to pass a basic physical and a physical ability test. All training is paid for by the fire district.

Support volunteers include people who provide meals or coffee at a large fire or at a business meeting, might help organize open houses or could participate in various events that Fire & Rescue does in the community — just a few examples.

Louden said the association may be taking a look at expanding the type of volunteer opportunities that would be available, although any final decisions would be up to the chief.

“There’s just a lot of things that need to get done here that you don’t have to be a firefighter or an EMS person to do,” Louden said. “There’s everything from answering the phones to working on facilities, working on vehicles … even grant writers.”

What about people who might have time to contribute but have fears about the type of work they would be doing?

“It’s the same thing about CPR,” said Saalsaa, who is a certified instructor. “People don’t do CPR because the one thing they don’t want to do is mouth-to-mouth until you tell them you don’t have to do mouth-to-mouth. Push hard and fast in the center of the chest and the patient stays alive — go, that’s it, that’s all you have to do.”

Louden said the fire district would never send a volunteer out on a call who is not adequately supervised.

“They might be a new person but they’re not the main person,” he said. “They’re going to be riding that rig with somebody else that knows what they’re doing. … It’s unfair to ask a volunteer to put themselves at risk in a job that they do not know what they’re doing.”

Saalsaa said it’s up to the professionals to make sure the volunteers know what they’re doing.

“We’re not going to send someone into a burning building that’s never been in one before,” Saalsaa said. “We’re not going to send somebody out on a car wreck that has never had any experience of being at a car wreck before. They have to get trained up to be able to manage and handle that and they’re always going to be with the person that knows what they’re doing.”

In short, it’s a safety issue.

“Everything about us is safety, everything,” Saalsaa said. “We take very good care of people so they’re not put in a position of ‘I’m very uncomfortable here.’”

Volunteers can receive training to contribute to the local district as a firefighter. (Photo provided by Philomath Fire & Rescue)

Volunteers deserve a lot of accolades, respect

Philomath Fire & Rescue currently has around 10 long-term, consistent volunteers with skill sets that benefit the district — that number out of the 26 mentioned earlier. Louden would like to see that number get up to around 15.

“What we are looking for are people that may not consider that they have what it takes and I’m here to disabuse them of that,” Saalsaa said.

Marty Theurer has the longest run as a volunteer at 26 years — and he also works full-time as a firefighter in another district. Bob Riegelmann has 24 years volunteering — he’s limited to driving a fire engine and a water tender. And then there’s Paula Anderson, Dan Kearl, Viktor Bovbjerg, Phil Burkum and on down the line. There’s even a father-son team in Dan and Cody Eddy, who will reach two years of service in March.

“We know that we have a volunteer community that deserves a lot of accolades and respect because they’re the backbone of what we do,” Saalsaa said. “And we’re not going to treat you like a paid person, although you will be professionally trained as if you were a paid person. The training is not any different.”

Although the fire district will accept volunteers that are at least 18 years old, Saalsaa said there is a particular interest in older residents who may be in a good position to contribute some time.

“We need to look at people that are in their 50s, their families are pretty much raised and they have an opportunity to actually give back to their community in the extraordinary opportunity of fire and EMS service,” Saalsaa said. “I was 57 years old and wandered down here and volunteered. Yes, I had previous experience but it doesn’t matter — we train you up and take damn good care of you.”

Saalsaa believes volunteering has a social aspect to it.

“We come together, we train as teams, we go out, we put them in scenarios that are realistic,” he said. “What we’re looking for really is just greater community involvement and their ability to make a difference in their community.”

With the fire district’s budget restricted, if the situation with volunteers continues to deteriorate over the next few years, it could become necessary to hire personnel. And if that’s the case, an operational levy would need to go before the voters.

“We have to be realistic,” Saalsaa said. “If we can’t do it with volunteers, we have to do it with paid staff.”More information on volunteering and an online application can be found on the Philomath Fire & Rescue website. Those with questions can call the fire station at 541-360-0030 or admin@philomathfire.com.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.