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PVFD battling to gain new recruits


Jess Field / Petersburg Pilot

A mixture of potential volunteers and non-volunteers take the Emergency Trauma Technician (ETT) course at the PVFD station house on Wednesday.

The age of Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department (PVFD) members ranges from men and women in their early-20s to a handful of men over 60. Some of the volunteers have over 30 years of experience, but they are starting to reach retirement age, and the department is fighting to recruit younger generations.

Fire marshal Ryan Welde has just over 21 years with PVFD, he is one of two paid employees with the department, and he helps train new recruits seeking Firefighter-1 state certification. Welde says the class teaches how to stretch hose, fire behavior and tactics for attacking fires. The course is intensive and requires 160 hours to complete.

“It’s basic firefighting training, you’re learning the trade,” Welde says. “You’re learning what we do, what tools we use, and how we do what we do.”

In 2010, there were 10 new recruits taking the course, but only two of them were retained by the department. The next three years there were four recruits total, but all stayed with the department. In 2015, eight recruits were trained and three of them were retained. This year, three recruits currently are working on completing the course.

Welde says the time commitment of the Firefighter-1 course can be a big hurdle when recruiting new volunteers. However, retaining the men and women as volunteers can be equally difficult because people moving out of the community after completing the course is common. PVFD competes with jobs, travel and life in general, he says.

“Our department is no different than any other department in the state or country,” Welde says. “Every department is struggling to get volunteers.”

Welde says he likes everything about the job. For him, it’s about helping people that need help, it’s exciting and he enjoys the camaraderie with other firefighters.

Camaraderie is one of the top incentives for prospective firefighters along with the free training they receive. Other small incentives include a membership to Parks and Rec, a free dinner provided once a month, but camaraderie is chief among them.

If you ask volunteer fire chief Doug Welde how long he has been with the PVFD he will likely say, “I’ve been around for a good handful of years.” Chief remembers when all Petersburg had for activities was going to the gym or listening to radio out of Juneau. There was no television, no swimming pool, and people joined the PVFD because it was something exciting to do.

“Nowadays there’s so many things competing for people’s time, it’s hard to find people with the time,” he says. “What happens if the alarm rings and nobody shows?”

Retirement among the older volunteers is a concern for the chief, because finding recruits to fill their shoes is getting tougher and tougher. Before the Firefighter-1 course started this year, he had a list of eight people to go and talk with about volunteering. None of them were available for the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday course requirements. Even though the department makes an effort to offer the course during a slow time of year other commitments often bar people from participating, he says.

“When you look at a calendar and go through there and block it out, the least competition is generally January, February and March,” he says. “But even then, there are still people that cannot make it for this reason or that.”

The PVFD includes Firefighting, Search and Rescue and Emergency Medical Services (EMS), and department director Sandy Dixson supervises them all. She is well aware of the difficulties associated with finding and retaining new recruits, especially when it comes to EMS.

There are 10 people currently in the Emergency Trauma Technician (ETT) course, which requires 47 hours to complete, but only half of them are potential volunteers. Past classes have averaged around six a year but retaining even one can be difficult.

“They go through the class and get their certificate and then boom, they are gone,” Dixson says. “So they are either doing it for their real job, that they get paid for, or in hopes of furthering their education.”

Dixson started with the department as EMS coordinator in 2001, and she has been director for over five years now, but she still volunteers between her director duties. She cares about the department and volunteers, and she makes sure to always show her appreciation for volunteers. Morale among volunteers can dip occasionally, and some of them do not feel like the borough fully supports their efforts, she says.

“When you hear people knocking the new fire station, or saying that we don’t deserve the equipment we have, or they want to cut our training budget, things like that are very frustrating for the volunteers,” Dixson says. “People see us, they don’t need us unless there’s an emergency. Then when they have an emergency we are the greatest people on earth.”

Firefighters carry a pager and respond to a call if they are available, and PVFD calls since 2011 average right at 50 per year, including 70 in 2015. EMS volunteers are asked to commit a 12-hour block of time, seven days a month. EMS calls over the last five years average just under 195 per year. Dixson understands both are big commitments, and she says volunteerism numbers are down nationwide, not just in Petersburg.

“My fear is that people are going to get tired and burnt out because we don’t have enough people in the pool to draw from,” she says.


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