Canada has about 450 wildfires burning across the country, and the East Coast of the United States recently experienced air quality associated with an active fire season. It’s a scenario familiar to residents in the western part of the country, but the West usually gets evacuations and damaged property in addition to poor air quality.
To battle the blazes north of our border, Canada has brought in 300 firefighters from Europe, about 125 from South Africa, 200 from Australia and New Zealand, and more than 600 firefighters from the United States.
Long before this fire season began, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs were drawing attention to the firefighter shortage across the country, but especially in smaller, rural communities.
The situation in the United States is no better, with fire departments struggling to recruit and retain firefighters. It’s an important issue in Wyoming as well and is a priority topic under consideration by the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.
The committee met in late April to discuss the topic, hearing from a panel that included Shad Cooper, Fire Chief for Sublette County Unified Fire, County Fire Warden for Sublette County, and President of the Fire Advisory Board for the Wyoming Rural Firefighters Association; Lanny Applegate, Wyoming Fire Service; and Eric Quinney, President of the Wyoming Fire Chiefs’ Association and Chief Administrative Officer of Uinta County Fire and Ambulance.
Panelists testified about the results of a survey it conducted involving Wyoming fire departments. Of 55 Wyoming fire departments (municipal, county, or rural) responding to the recent survey, most reported experiencing challenges with recruiting new firefighters. All told, the responding fire departments reported the need for nearly 500 additional firefighters statewide to fill their rosters.
The Tongue River and Alpine fire departments reported a need for 90-100% new recruits (12-15 new firefighters) for each department to fill available need, while Lingle and Lusk need 67-71% more recruits, or 10 new recruits per department.
But the need for new firefighters isn’t limited to rural departments, with departments reporting the need for nearly 30% new recruits statewide. For municipal departments, Lander reports needing 16 recruits, Rawlins needs 15, Kemmerer needs 10, and Newcastle needs 8.
Countywide fire departments have big needs as well, with Carbon County seeking 30 recruits, Natrona County needing 15, and Sublette County 25. Nearly all the 55 departments reported a shortage of firefighters on their rosters even as the number of calls for assistance continues to rise.
How should Wyoming address its firefighter shortage? Wyoming fire service representatives brought a priority list to the legislative committee meeting in April, offering up a host of ideas, from development of a statewide advertising and marketing campaign, to governmental agencies allowing volunteer firefighters the ability to access group healthcare plans which the firefighters could purchase.
The list of possibilities included offering reduced price hunting and fishing licenses to active volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
They noted that Wyoming state government has an opportunity to lead by example by adopting a policy that would allow volunteer firefighters on state staff to respond to emergency incidents during working hours as paid personal leave (up to a certain number of hours).
As the fire services pointed out, “Ideally, this ‘emergency response’ policy could be a template for other government and private agencies to encourage volunteer firefighters to support their communities.”
The Labor Committee agreed to have the Legislative Service Office draft a variety of bills that would provide incentives for firefighters in local departments. The bills will include:
• offering volunteer firefighters the same tax exemption that is offered to veterans;
• allowing an employer to rehire a career firefighter who has retired without suspending the retired member’s pension benefit;
• creating a marketing campaign and providing it with an appropriation;
• allowing state employees to have 24 hours of time off for emergency medical services or firefighter volunteering;
• creating a designated hunting week for only EMS and firefighter volunteers; and
• making volunteer firefighters eligible for the state insurance plan if they meet the requirements of attending 50% of their meetings and 20% of calls as a volunteer.
When the legislative committee meets in Evanston June 22-23 to continue its discussions, the committee will consider these bill drafts aimed to increasing recruitment and retention for both firefighters and EMS. The bills are on the committee’s schedule for discussion on Friday, June 23, at 9:40 a.m.
It’s too soon to know which, if any, of these bills the committee will end up sponsoring, but I appreciate their effort to address the problem. When I think about fire protection services, the late Sublette County Commissioner Gordon Johnston comes to mind.
Gordon, a retiree of the U.S. Marine Corps and a dedicated firearms instructor, served on the county commission for 12 years, and used to carry a leather briefcase to meetings, opening it up and leaving it sitting nearby so he could see the words he’d printed out on a piece of paper.
The words reflected his view of the role of government; the principle that the proper role of government was to do for the people those things that have to be done but cannot be done, or cannot be done as well, by individuals. Fire protection fell firmly within this category.
With six bills to consider, the Labor Committee has the opportunity for modest action to provide incentives for firefighters. The result could be big benefits for fire protection throughout the state.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.