Photo by Hans Hallgren

Breaking tradition

Fire Department looks at new ways to attract recruits


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For more information or to set up an appointment to discuss working with Craig Fire/Rescue, stop by the fire station at 419 Yampa Ave. from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or call 824-5914.

— Samantha Johnston's rookie year at Craig Fire/Rescue was a baptism by fire of sorts.

She said she wouldn't have had it any other way.

"The fire service is definitely steeped in tradition," said Johnston, a fourth-year firefighter and Fire Department training officer. "There's definitely no better feeling than being a part of that firefighter family.

"My rookie year experience was great, and not something I would trade for anything in the world. There's no way I would leave the Fire Department for anything other than if I was leaving this whole area."

Some of that hard-nosed training, though, that "paramilitary" attitude that Johnston said the Fire Department needs to be sure its rookies can handle pressure and orders during an emergency, seems to make it hard to find new recruits lately, she said.

"We're reaching a critical shortage of firefighters," Johnston said. "We're responding today with 15 firefighters to fires that Denver responds to with 50."

Craig Fire/Rescue has 23 firefighters today, but officials contend the minimum number of firefighters it should have is 30.

With few firefighters, the officials have to be more concerned about firefighter safety, Johnston said.

"In cases like the Country Mall, for instance, our stance has to be more defensive," she said. "We don't have the manpower to respond to fires like we want. In a worst-case scenario, the possibility for firefighters to get hurt or killed exponentially increases. We have to focus more on containment than battling the fire."

Johnston said Craig firefighters are committed to responding to every call. What they're able to do when they get there is dependent on resources - quality, trained firefighters chief among them.

"When we respond to a house fire that's out of control, do we contain it or do we put our firefighters in serious danger?" Johnston asked. "Will our firefighters work on containing it or will they put themselves in danger?

"That's a position we don't want to put people in, the community or ourselves."

So, with some regrets for losing tradition but an eye toward the future, Johnston said the Fire Department is looking to make changes for its new recruitment campaign.

Make things flexible for recruits.

Let them have some control over when trainings are to fit around their schedule.

And, Johnston said, maybe have someone else besides the rookies clean the bathrooms.

"Obviously, we know volunteerism is waning across the country, but we've been hit especially hard," she said.

It's not about lowering standards, but more so about appealing to a new generation, said K.C. Hume, a captain with the Fire Department.

The 24- to 35-year-old men and women of today are in a different world than when Hume joined nine years ago, he said.

"It's a different society today," Hume said. "Time commitments become strained and that kind of thing."

Today's average 20- and 30-somethings have a lot on their plate, Johnston said.

"That age range is people who have professional careers. They're doing fun stuff on the weekends, they have little kids at home," Johnston said. "The fire departments are so steeped in tradition because we've all had to come through the ranks the same way.

"But, we're at a point where we're saying this is the last thing we know how to do. It's disappointing to me personally that things can't be about pride and ownership anymore. It has to be about what's in it for me. At the same time, it is what it is."

Hume said several things led to his decision to join the Fire Department, but a lot centered on his friendship with firefighters he met through his duties with the Moffat County Sheriff's Office.

Perhaps the Fire Department can foster similar relationships with more local residents during its recruitment campaign. Firefighters plan to be more visible and approachable at upcoming community events.

The campaign kicked off during Grand Ole West Days, with plans to keep recruiting until September.

Johnston said the Fire Department started earlier than normal this year because of the need for more recruits.

Fire Department members plan to man tables at community events such as Grand Ole West Days to meet one-on-one with interested community members.

There will be a come-one-come-all barbecue later this summer, as well as a chance to meet firefighters and the Fire Department's leadership and talk informally.

Hume said he was looking forward to the new campaign and felt encouraged the Fire Department was taking proactive steps to increase numbers in the ranks.

"I'm really hoping that, come the end of this recruiting campaign, we have 20, 30, 40 new recruits wanting to be a part of the team and give back to their community," he said. "I wouldn't trade this for anything. It's an extension of my family."

In the event the Fire Department doesn't recruit many new firefighters, Fire Chief Bill Johnston said other steps will have to be taken to ensure fire coverage for the area and safety for his firefighters.

Currently, firefighters are all paid part time with an hourly wage that starts when an alarm goes off. Johnston said he could schedule shifts so that he knows there is safe coverage for the area.

However, as Craig gets bigger and there are more fire safety needs, without new recruits the Fire Department will have to pay for full-time firefighters.

In that event, Johnston said he would go before the taxpayers and the City Council and ask for support funding.

"But that possible end is not our goal," he said. "I would like to recruit lots of enthusiastic firefighters that are willing to step up and be part of our team."


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