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Searching for firefighters
The number of volunteer firefighters serving in the U.S. has declined 14 percent over the past 28 years. At Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue, it’s worse, having plummeted a staggering 70 percent since 1993.
Such statistics suggest the historical model for staffing rural fire departments has seen its day, particularly in Coupeville. But there are examples that indicate otherwise, giving hope that volunteer fire departments can survive.
Take two of Central Whidbey’s newest recruits. Brad Sherman, 26, a local farm boy turned legislative aide; and Bob Moore, 66, is a retired small business owner from California. Demographically, they couldn’t be more different.
Yet both have given up hundreds of hours of their time and will give up hundreds more to help people they have never met. Whether it’s during Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas morning, when the pager goes off they will leave their wives and family behind for complete strangers.
And they will do it virtually for free.
Tractors to fire trucks
Young, strong, honest and with roots in the community, Sherman is the quintessential volunteer firefighter.
Unsurprisingly, the former Wolves football captain and quarterback has been interested in the fire service for a long time. But he also admits that he didn’t always dream of being behind the wheel of a fire truck.
“I was kinda more into tractors growing up,” Sherman said. “I always wanted to drive a John Deere.”
Sherman grew up in a centennial family that has been farming Central Whidbey for more than 100 years. So far, however, agriculture hasn’t been in the cards for the Western Washington University graduate.
Shortly after finishing with a political science degree in 2007, Sherman landed a job as the legislative aide for Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton. The job requires he spend a few months of the year working in Olympia, but the rest of the time he’s able to live in Coupeville.
He wasn’t home long before a personal interest in firefighting caught up with him. Public service is common in his family and he was already volunteering as an assistant coach with high school sports so making the commitment wasn’t too difficult.
“Community service is something I think is important,” he said.
Since he got out of the academy in late 2010, he’s responded to the smorgasbord of calls typical of today’s fire departments, among them trees across a roadway, boats in distress, car accidents, blown transformers, and of course, house fires.
Sherman’s first was an attic fire in Coupeville late last year. He’d just come home from EMT training when his pager began to squawk about smoke showing from a building. How he felt at the moment is difficult to describe, he said.
“You don’t want to use the word ‘excited’ because someone is potentially having one of the worst nights of their lives,” he said. “But, it’s what you’ve been training for.”
He doesn’t remember being afraid, though Sherman said both he and his wife know the risks. Whether you are paid or a volunteer makes no difference. Firefighting is a dangerous job.
The young fireman writes off most of the danger, saying there is risk in just about everything you do so there is little use worrying about what ifs.
“It could happen on my way home from work,” Sherman said.
Also, and perhaps most important of all, these are simply risks he’s willing to take for his home town.
“I grew up here,” Sherman said. “Giving back to the community is something I want to do.”
That said, now that he’s had a taste of the business, Sherman is considering a career as a professional firefighter. He doesn’t see himself leaving Coupeville or his current job anytime soon, but volunteering has definitely opened up new possibilities.
A new veteran
Bob Moore is also one of Central Whidbey’s newest firefighters. In fact, he went through the academy with Sherman.
But Moore is no new guy, especially when it comes to volunteerism.
Before he retired to Whidbey Island in 2004, he’d already lived a lifetime of public service, not the least of which includes 10 years with a rural fire department and nine years as a member of an underwater search and rescue team in California.
And like any old hand, Moore has war stories. Some, such as his introduction to firefighting, are comical. For example, his early training consisted of him being let loose with a shovel on a field of burning beehives.
“I learned quick to stay in the smoke because that’s where the bees were less aggressive,” said Moore, grinning at the memory.
Others are not so funny. In a burning house he once fell through a floor up to his elbows. Hanging there, with most of his body dangling out of sight, Moore said he acutely remembers thinking how this was going to be a terrible way to die.
But fate saw otherwise and he was pulled to safety by a fellow firefighter. While the incident occurred about 30 years ago, Moore says the man has been one of his best friends ever since.
Another time, Moore was involved in a serious car accident and nearly died while lying on the side of a freeway. Once again, it was a volunteer fireman who came to his aid.
“I never forgot that,” Moore said.
Despite those past experiences, he never expected to return to firefighting. Moore approached Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue offering his services as a diver. As it turned out, the department wasn’t looking for scuba skills but it was on the hunt for volunteers.
It didn’t take too much convincing, and before he knew it, Moore was once again sporting a fire hat. Things have been a little different this time around. Like all new recruits, he had to undergo more than 150 hours of firefighting training and none of it involved burning beehives.
Some modern regulations have been downright frustrating. For example, even though he drove with sirens and lights blazing for years in California, he lacks today’s required certifications and is limited to passenger only status.
Moore said rules like that seem a little silly at times but it doesn’t affect his overall willingness or desire to volunteer. He feels a need to give back and petty irritations won’t stand in the way.
“I’m alive because of an all volunteer fire department,” Moore said.
As two of the latest additions to Central Whidbey’s volunteer firefighting force, Sherman and Moore are just a snap shot of 17 department volunteers.
Each is just as committed and self-sacrificing and all have the desire to give back to their communities, according to Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue Chief Ed Hartin. However, economic, social and demographic factors have affected how and why people serve.
For example, while Sherman’s youth and community roots make him a mirror for past generations of volunteers, he is also part of a growing trend of new recruits who are seeking paid careers.
Losing them to larger urban departments is just one of several retainment problems facing small districts such as Central Whidbey, Hartin said.
“In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to stay for 15, 20 or 25 years,” he said.
Moore also represents a shift. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age in Coupeville has risen from 43 in 2000 to 51 in 2011. With a smaller pool of potential young people, it’s likely the fire district will see more and more older volunteers.
Despite being the oldest recruit in his class at the academy, age hasn’t posed a problem for Moore. In fact, on a timed physical test he actually out performed some paid firefighters.
“He’s an unusual guy,” Hartin said.
Even more miraculous is that Moore has a history of heart problems. Several years ago, he underwent open heart surgery and had a valve replaced with one from a pig.
While the who and why of volunteers is changing, and some of those do present new problems, today’s volunteers aren’t any less valuable than those of yesterday, Hartin said. In fact, he plans to seek out as many Shermans and Moores, and anyone in between, as he can find.
“They really are an indispensable part of what we do,” Hartin said.
Second in a series
This is the second story of a three-part series looking at declining volunteer levels at Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue. The problem is beginning to adversely affect the department’s performance with increased response times.
The district is hoping to address the issue with a 34-cent levy-lid increase on the Feb. 14 special election ballot. Estimated to garner an additional $510,000 a year.
Part three of the series is scheduled to run Saturday and will include alook at the district’s finances, why proponents say the levy is needed, and how its success or failure at the polls will affect the department.
Andy Griffin: 1987
Mike Siemion: 1988
Steve Hutchinson: 1988
Pat Kisch: 1995
Marvin Raavel: 2000
Phil Matthes: 2005
Josh Wellman: 2005
Craig Peterson: 2008
Mat Helm: 2008
Diane Paul: 2009
Dustin Gardner: 2009
Jeff Tasoff: 2009
Robert Moore: 2010
Brad Sherman: 2010
Matt Pradon: 2011
Jeffrey Rhodes: 2010
Bill Richmond: 2010