Thursday, December 1, 2011

Volunteer firefighting in rural America.

The gemeinschaft quality of rural communities is exhibited in the culture of volunteer firefighting departments, which are prevalent across the country. In various social and economic ways, ruralities support these volunteers, who play a vital role in the communities in which they serve. Volunteer firefighters are relied on for public health and safety in many areas that lack official fire departments, or are located far away from them.

I spoke to an old friend of mine who serves as a volunteer firefighter in the Capay Valley. I will refer to him under the pseudonym "Jim," since he must purportedly buy everyone in the department ice cream if he talks to the media. Jim lives between the unincorporated town of Rumsey,CA and the town of Guinda, CA, the latter which has a population of 254.

Jim and his wife, who are from the city originally, are newcomers to the Capay Valley and one of the few young couples who live there. They say they decided to move there because they were attracted to the slow-town atmosphere and the farming lifestyle. Jim says that he decided to join the volunteer fire department because it sounded fun and seemed like the best way to get to know people in the community. Being a volunteer firefighter actually helped Jim and his wife to find their jobs and helped them gain credibility in the eyes of locals who were, at first, skeptical that the young couple meant to settle down. Jim says that joining the volunteers was the fastest way to gain acceptance in the tight-knit valley community.

Jim explained that recruits go through extensive fire safety and water rescue training before becoming volunteers. When he is on duty he carries a beeper with him everywhere. If it goes off, he must show up to the volunteer meeting place, no matter what time of day or night it is. His wife said that the volunteers' wives often commiserate over being woken up in the middle of the night to beeping. Even, during the fire off-season, volunteers still respond to a number of calls, many of them car accidents in which the volunteers are often first to respond.

Jim reports that, like the general population of Capay Valley, the members of the volunteer firefighting department are aging . Jim is one of the only volunteers, in the department who is under 40. This raises serious issues for the fire department, which is especially relied upon during the volatile California fire season. Every Capay Valley local remembers the devastating fires of 2008, in which over 2,780 fires burned across the state and 23 people were killed.

Many of these fires were fought by volunteers, some coming from out-of-state, and even out of the country. If younger recruits aren't found for the department over the next ten years, the region could face serious troubles during the fire season. Finding young recruits for a rural volunteer fire department can be especially difficult under the current rural paradigm, in which rural populations in general are rapidly aging.


oceguera said...
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oceguera said...

The lack of presence by the state (in this case funding for public services) in rural areas seems to encourage this sense of mutual aid amongst community members. People are more than encouraged to get know each other and what one can potentially offer the other. I know things aren't so idealistic and many people in rural communities may rather avoid interacting with their neighbors, but I think that is less of the case than what your friend experienced as a newcomer to a small town.

KevinN said...

My Dad lives in a fairly rural county in Florida where the fire department has recently decided to make the shift from volunteer to professional. The increased tax burden is not sitting well with most of the county's residents who had grown accustomed to not having to pay very much for fire services. Perhaps that is a possibility for the Capay Valley. Although it might no be popular because of the increased expense, I think most people would rather have a fire department that costs them a little something than no fire department at all.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here's a link to an earlier post regarding another role that volunteer fire departments have played in some communities.

Azar said...

Good for Jim! Becoming a volunteer firefighter seems like one of the most selfless and meaningful things that one can do, particularly in rural towns that might have trouble funding a fire department.

If the volunteer program collapses in the future, the burden will fall on the taxpaying residents, but it will be a more than necessary tax. Fire safety is one of those things that a lot of people take for granted, but everyone ultimately needs because the risk is simply too great (especially in most areas of California). However, the volunteer program is a beautiful thing and seems to be effective. Hopefully, the youth around the Capay Valley will answer the call for help.