For the majority of the residents of Wyoming, it’s the volunteer members of their communities who keep their public lands and private properties safe from fire.
Out of the 114 fire departments in the state of Wyoming, only seven are staffed with paid professionals.
But just because 80% of all the firefighters in the state are volunteers, that doesn’t mean they’re not qualified.
“Typically, during your first year as a rookie, you’ll have over 100 hours of training,” said Sam Wilde, fire marshal for Park County Fire District No. 2. “That’s outside the regular training, and then the regular training is probably 50 to 60 hours a year just to keep up on certifications.”
Jerry Parker, the district’s administrator, said that training requirements have become much more stringent in the last 40 years.
“Now the firefighters have to be firefighter (level) 1, firefighter (level) 2,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “They’re a rookie for almost their first full year, training every Monday night.”
Ron Hill was a volunteer for the Cody fire department from 1974 to 1986. When he joined a rural division of the Park County fire district in 1974, there were just 15 crew members. When the department merged with the Cody city crew in 1976, that brought the numbers to 48 volunteers, who responded to between 80 and 90 calls per year.
Now, Park County Fire District No. 2, one of the largest all-volunteer districts in Wyoming, covers 3,200 miles, boasts 70 volunteers for both the rural and in-town crews, plus four paid staff and responds to an average of 290 calls each year, according to Parker.
“In 2016, we responded to 354 calls,” he said – a record for the department.
Parker pointed out that volunteers are trained for other emergencies as well, such as extrication, wildland fires and hazardous materials, which adds to the call volume.
So far this year, Park County Fire District No. 2 has responded to three structure fires, 15 wildland fires, 17 calls to accidents, 30 alarms, and 40 miscellaneous calls (reports of smoke or the smell of gas, for example).
“Fire alarm systems, a lot of false alarms,” Parker said, is a major factor in the increase in fire calls. “In fact, we’ve had to create a policy because of unnecessary false alarms, people not maintaining their systems.”
“This time of year we have a lot of car wrecks,” said Wilde. “Because we perform extrications, rather than waiting for an ambulance to get there and then saying, ‘Oh, the person is trapped,’ we are automatically dispatched. So that’s part of the call volume.”
The state-of-the-art equipment that Park County’s fire department uses is a far cry from the horse-drawn hose cart used by the first volunteers in Cody in 1902.
Now, in large part because of its volunteers, the fire district in Cody can spend its $1.2 million budget on equipment and a few necessary staff members, according to Hill.
“It’s big business now,” said Hill. “I mean, back when, we didn’t have any administrators – there was a fire chief and an assistant chief and that was it, and we had a fire board. But now we’ve got administrators and fire inspectors and mechanics.
“I mean, we have a hell of a budget, which we’re fortunate with, but we’re able to get the best equipment that money can buy because we’re not paying a lot of money for the volunteers,” he continued.
“If it wasn’t for the fact that our guys volunteer, we wouldn’t have this nice equipment,” said Wilde. “If you go to some of those paid departments and see some of their equipment there, they’re still pumping trucks from the ‘80s. And that’s because most of the money goes to salaries.”
Parker said that Park County’s fire departments are paid for out of a 3-mill levy, meaning that a share of all the property taxes paid in the county go to fund the departments.
“Park County is very fortunate that we have the board we have, and the money that we get, and still operate volunteers to have the equipment that we have,” Parker said. “People that come in here are just amazed at the equipment that we’re able to have.”
“If you look at those seven paid departments around the state, pretty much the only way that they can do that is because they all run emergency medical services (EMS) as well,” said Wilde “Most of the paid departments, 80% of their calls are not fire related, they’re EMS calls. And that’s how they can be funded.”
For some communities in Wyoming, a large percentage of the population is involved in the fire department.
Take Jeffrey City, for example, where 13 of its 35 residents are volunteer firefighters.
“I’ve got two 50-year volunteers, my dad has been on for 38 years,” said Jeffrey City Fire Chief Vern Redland. “I’ve been a firefighter on and off for 20 years.”
He said that his district, which covers the southwest corner of Fremont County, boasts more volunteers than some of the more populated communities.
“The rest of the county, they’re having a hard time keeping firemen or getting firemen, and we’ve got more firemen than like, Pavilion and Midvale and all those guys over there,” Redland told Cowboy State Daily.
Volunteer firefighters often have to put their family lives on hold in the name of protecting the community.
“As a volunteer, you miss birthday parties, many holidays, and all kinds of special events,” said Parker.
“Guaranteed, if you sit down for a family dinner, or a birthday, the pager goes off,” Wilde added. “It never fails.”
For Jeffrey City firefighters, though, the department really is family – Redland said both his dad and his mom were members of the crew at one point.
“It would have been 1985, I think, she started,” Redland said of his mother, Laurie, one of five women on the Jeffrey City crew at the time. “My mom retired after 20 years.
“I grew up in that fire department,” he continued. “All the firemen treated me like their own son. There was a lot of us kids running around, and the fire meetings on Thursday night, we’d go in the back room while they had their meeting.”
The volunteers interviewed for this story all expressed their appreciation for the “family” that they have gained – the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of firefighters around the world.
“I could go halfway across the United States, have a breakdown in my car, and know I can walk into any fire station, because it’s just a big family,” said Wilde. “No matter where you go.”