|In July, 2016 the volunteer structured Wet Mountain Fire Protection District (WMFPD) began the implementation of what Chief Dave Tonsing calls both an “important” and an “interesting concept.” Core problems experienced by volunteer fire departments everywhere include manpower shortage and income loss when a volunteer goes off the clock to respond to a call.
Colorado alone claims to be 4300 firefighters short in meeting the threats of fire to our communities. One approach to addressing this need has been to confront the issues head-on. “Several years ago,” Tonsing reports, “it was becoming clear that our best efforts to convince people that they should commit to hours of training, expose themselves to the constant threat of danger, and be available to leave their income-producing jobs behind when the sirens sounded, were not getting much traction in our little community. And all this for no pay! All we heard was I can’t join or, if I do, I can’t run because of my kids, my job, my wife, or I need to have a life. And it had gotten worse over the past 5 to 10 years. Thus the statewide shortage.”
Reaching out to other volunteer departments to see what efforts were being successful in addressing these issues, WMFPD discovered an interesting program that Chief Gary McWilliams had put in place at the Florence Fire Department. There, volunteer firefighters were simply committing to a period of time each day, guaranteeing their response in the event of a call for a set amount of money, whether or not a call even dropped into dispatch.
After a lot of conversation with Chief McWilliams, and lots of discussion within the WMFPD board, the district decided to implement a program specific to the local setting. Known as “paid on-call” or simply “Shift Board” for the online program that administers and monitors the program, the first nine months of practice has eliminated some of the financial stress of firefighters leaving their jobs, and has assured about 66 percent of the 24/7/365 time being covered by two firefighters committed to respond to any calls.
The two firefighters, through the “Shift Board,” have signed up for a “shift” running either from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., or from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. In so doing, they have promised to respond to their closest station within 10 minutes of any call. For this they receive $50, whether they are called to respond or not.
The district found a way to budget $70,000 to fund the program, the amount it takes to cover the cost of two shifts per day times two firefighters. “That same amount would only pay two firefighters for forty hours per week if we were a paid department,” Tonsing points out, “so we feel we’re getting a pretty good bang for our buck.”
John Tillotson, board member and firefighter, worked with Chief Tonsing to design the program, and now manages the “Shift Board” for the department as it moves forward in filling more of the shifts every month. “The first four months, we were really learning how to work the program,” Tillotson says, “but even on Christmas Day we had both shifts covered.” There have of course been some kinks to smooth out, all of them simple miscommunication snarls; Tillotson adds, “We don’t foresee snafus, and as we experience them we work them out, and learn to improve.”
There are about 15 firefighters of the current 24 who consistently sign up for shifts. “When we get back to 30 voted members—some have left for college or other work placement—we should be just fine in covering all the shifts,” Tillotson reports, “but right now all weeknights are being covered.” “Shift Board” can also schedule coverage for special events, so has department versatility beyond the daily 12 hour shift scheduling. “This helps our firefighters,” he says, “while we don’t risk our volunteer status. We’re feeling a bit more secure now that we have responders actually on call.”
In June the district will be evaluating “Shift Board,” and looking to keep the program at or under its current funding for the next budget cycle. “I’ve just heard two firefighters call in to Dispatch to notify them of their availability for this day’s shift,” Tomsing concludes, “…it’s a good feeling.”
– W.A. Ewing