Two Blaine County fire departments have been awarded federal grant funding to help them with recruitment and retention initiatives, as fire departments across the county work to recruit firefighters for firehouses that have become increasingly busier.

    Hailey Fire Department and Wood River Fire & Rescue were awarded more than $650,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—FEMA—in a grant called SAFER: Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. The grant funding will go towards yet-to-be-determined benefits for every volunteer firefighter in both departments.

    The grant funding “is imperative,” Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman said in an interview Wednesday.

    In 2011, Blaine County received the “SAFER” grant, spreading the funds across Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey, Bellevue, Carey and Magic. Those funds benefited over 100 volunteer firefighters in the county with costs ranging from helping to pay for nursing school or paramedic school, to helping with the cost of child care and adding to their retirement funds.    

    This grant will be dispersed in a similar way. Both departments are working with a grants administrator and creating an advisory committee of volunteer firefighters to help decide which benefits volunteer firefighters will get. The low end of the funding will be $250 a month and the highest will be $500 a month for volunteer firefighters who are going above and beyond the requirements, responding to more calls and completing additional training hours.

    Hailey Fire Department Chief Craig Aberbach said this grant funding is vital, as volunteer firefighter numbers are on the decline, not just in Blaine County, but nationwide.

    According to the National Fire Protection Agency, 70 percent of all firefighters in the country are volunteers. In 2015, there were 29,727 fire departments in the U.S., and 19,762 of them were all volunteer-based.  

    The National Volunteer Fire Council stated in a Volunteer Fire Service Fact Sheet from 2018 that the U.S. reached its lowest volunteer firefighter numbers in 2011. Since then, it said, that number has slowly been increasing but the growth hasn’t been enough to meet the steady increase in call volume, which has tripled nationwide in the last 30 years, due in large part to an increase in emergency medical calls.

    The council stated that the major factors contributing to the recruitment challenges include increased time demands, more rigorous training requirements, and the proliferation of two-income families whose members do not have time to volunteer. Aberbach said those are all factors that have contributed to the decreases in volunteers in Blaine County, as well.

    Volunteer firefighter Erin Griffith, 34, who volunteers both for Hailey and Wood River Fire & Rescue, was one of three volunteer firefighters who benefited from the 2011 grant and put the money towards tuition for paramedic school.

    “It’s a huge benefit and incentive to volunteer and help at the firehouse,” Griffith said.

    For Griffith, the grant money helped to pay a substantial amount of her schooling. She is now on her way to becoming a licensed paramedic—a role that is in high demand and short supply in the county.

    Jake Chaney, 34, along with Griffith, caught the tail end of the grant funding in 2015 and put the funds towards his paramedic schooling. Without that funding, Chaney said, the paramedic program “would have diminished my bank account.” Chaney and Griffith both also said that another benefit of the funding is that they were able to work fewer hours, allowing them to focus more of their attention on school.

    This year’s grant funding will be spent over a four-year period, and eventually benefit every volunteer firefighter in both departments. Initially, the departments hope to recruit 10 new volunteers, and the grant will go towards paying for brand-new equipment and gear for each new recruit. So far, they’ve recruited five new volunteers. Both Aberbach and Lassman are hopeful that they’ll be able to recruit the additional five volunteers before the firefighter’s academy begins in January.

Aberbach strongly encouraged those interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter to apply.

“In a community our size, we can’t always afford to hire career firefighters—it’s just not practical,” Lassman said.

Aberbach explained that without the support of the community and local businesses, the fire departments would always be short-staffed. He said local businesses deserve thanks for being flexible and allowing volunteer firefighters to leave work, allowing them to respond to calls when needed.

    Hailey Fire Department and Wood River Fire & Rescue were one of four Idaho fire departments that received the FEMA grant. The other departments were in Lewiston, Twin Falls and Sandpoint.

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