(Lander, WY) – Battalion 3 – Lander Rural Fire (LRF) averages 250 paged alarms a year which makes them the busiest of Fremont County Fire Protection District’s 13 volunteer-based battalions.
The current LRF roster only has 28 people on it, with only about 12 able to respond regularly. This battalion alone can support 40 firefighters.
Lack of volunteers has raised burnout concerns for those dozen firefighters, explained Nick Johnson, LRF public information officer and past battalion chief.
“We are not asking anymore, we are pleading for the community’s help,” he continued. “We have come close, quite a few times, where we’ve had nobody available to respond. This is a safety issue not only for us, the boots on the ground, but for the community as a whole.”
LRF is an all-hazard fire department which means they respond to calls for not only structure fires, but hazmat calls, car wrecks and wildland fires among others. They operate 13 apparatuses and are a non-transport service so they do not do any kind of EMS.
The requirements to become a probationary “probie” volunteer firefighter are fairly basic, shared Trent Jones, current battalion chief.
Requirements include a minimum age of 18, a clean driving record and pass a background check. No prior experience or minimum physical requirements.
During the 12-month probie period, you would be required to obtain a Wyoming Class B CDL, pass firefighter 1 training, hazmat awareness and operation training, basic wildland course, and the pack test. All of the training is paid for by either the district or state, so there is no out-of-pocket expense other than time.
The Class B CDL is required by pretty much every fire department in Wyoming, Jones shared. The department has an in-house trainer who takes the probie through the pre-trip, the skills test, and the driving portion.
The firefighter 1 training is mostly completed through an online platform and then a weekend spent at the academy in Riverton for practicals to work on the skills learned online.
The wildland course happens over a weekend and is followed by the pack test to become Red Card certified – the pack test requires the probie to complete a three-mile hike within 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound pack.
A Red Card certified firefighter can assist on any federal fire in the Nation and get paid, Johnson explained. Locally, if an incident on federal land goes over 6-hours, you would also receive pay.
A lot of the training is on-the-job and during the bi-monthly meetings – the first and third Thursdays every month at 7 pm.
Volunteer firefighter benefits include a pension from the state and if you meet the minimum requirements – attending 50% of the meetings and training, and responding to 30% of the paged alarms – the district pays into the retirement.
Workers’ compensation as well as a one-time line-of-duty death benefit for the family are also provided.
Incidentals like hats, shirts, and coats among other things are from the district as well at no cost to the probie.
“The things that give you a little bit of pride to say ‘I am a fireman,'” Johnson noted about the incidentals.
Probies are also issued around $10,000 worth of gear at no cost to them.
“If you look at our fleet, everything that we have the district provides the best money can buy. When it comes down to firefighter safety the district is really good about getting us the best equipment, gear and trucks.
“Our training is pretty top-notch. We take a lot of pride and how much training we do. Every time you are out the door, you don’t know if you’re coming back. You could be trapped in a fire, you could be involved in an accident, you can be burned over; it’s the stuff that you don’t think about but is in the back of your mind.
“So, if that might be holding somebody back, you fall back on your training and your experiences. We’re going to do everything in our power to get you home safely every call, every training back to your family.
LRF responds to a large portion of the county which includes South Pass, Jeffrey City, and to the county lines. They also respond to Fort Washakie, Ethete, and Hudson areas. As well as mutual aid with the Lander City Volunteer Fire Department, who also help them when possible.
“With us being a rural fire department I think there’s a misconception that you have to live out of town to be on a rural fire department, you don’t,” Johnson shared with County 10. “Out of the 28 people on the roster, we have five people who live out of town. A lot of our people live in town and they can get to either one of our stations fairly quickly.”
LRF operates out of two fire stations; a newer fire station located in Milford just north of Lander off of highway 287 toward Fort Washakie and their original station located on Mortimore Lane off of highway 287/789 south of Lander toward South Pass.
Firefighters live in a variety of areas outside of Lander including Red Canyon. There is no hard line of mileage outside of the city a person can live in, it’s just a reasonable distance for a response.
Both Johnson and Jones shared they are not seeking a specific age group or gender for volunteers. They also encourage women who are interested to apply; they currently have three on their roster.
“We’re trying to get people that are invested in the community,” said Johnson. “If they have families, great. A lot of us have younger kids. Our motto is – family, work, and then the fire department.
“Your family is the backbone of the fire department. They don’t get enough credit. They’re the ones at home having to deal with the children and deal with the missed birthdays and putting your cold dinner away.
“Employers as well, allowing the volunteers to leave during their busy times and the trying times. They’re still allowing their staff to go provide this service.”
Those interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter are encouraged to attend a monthly meeting on the first and third Thursdays of the month at 7 pm or call the Fremont County Fire Protection District Headquarters in Riverton at (307) 857-3030.
“We highly encourage them to come out, even if they’re not sure if that’s a fit for them,” said Johnson. “There’s no shame and filling out an application going through the process, and you may not work. You never know unless you try.”
With current LRF volunteer experiences ranging from one month to 35 years, they encourage potential volunteers to ask questions.
“Life as a probie can be entertaining, can be stressful, and it can be rewarding as well.”
Both Jones and Johnson have been volunteer firefighters for over a decade and shared that it was intimidating at first. They continue volunteering for different reasons, but one thing in common for them is giving back to their community.
With volunteers retiring and essentially 12 firefighters carrying the department, they are sending out a plea for help from the continually growing community.
They receive community support with goodies and supplies that are much appreciated and help them keep going during the long hours. However, they really need support, Johnson shared.
“What if nobody responds?”
Longtime Fremont County Fire Protection Chief Craig Haslam shared with County 10 that having volunteer-based fire departments saves so much taxpayer money and that a career fire department is something the county cannot afford.
The shortage of volunteer firefighters is a nationwide problem, according to both Haslam and Johnson.
“We are thankful for those who are able to volunteer,” Haslam said. “Volunteers are such a valuable commodity and invite anybody for the opportunity to try it.”
Again anyone interested in joining LRF is encouraged to attend a monthly meeting on the first and third Thursdays of the month at 7 pm or call the Fremont County Fire Protection District Headquarters in Riverton at (307) 857-3030.
In addition, the volunteer need goes beyond this one fire department. If anyone in another area of Fremont County is interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter for the FCFPD, you are encouraged to contact headquarters at the number above.