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They're fired-up to volunteer as firefighters
They ditch their jobs, sleep at fire stations and don't get paid, but when you dial 911, they are your best resource.
Throughout Yuba-Sutter, nearly every fire station is staffed primarily or entirely by volunteers. Despite staffing challenges and ever-increasing requirements, they dedicate countless hours to rush to the aid of their neighbors when life or property is at stake.
"I can't tell you how critical and important it is," said Sutter County Fire Chief Dan Yager. "We need them and we need more and we appreciate every hour they can give their community."
Whether it's the all-volunteer forces from Pleasant Grove to Camptonville, or volunteers at the Olivehurst Fire Department who sleep in the station to provide aid after paid staffers and interns have gone home for the day, every department knows the value of volunteers. Nationwide, volunteer emergency responders comprise 73 percent of fire service, with rural departments mostly or entirely staffed by volunteers and urban departments relying on volunteers to augment staffing.
Call volume and responsibilities continue to grow, but volunteerism has declined by 10 percent nationwide in the past 20 years.
"Back in the old days, people that resided within a community had a sense of a community," Yager said. "They would typically volunteer for organizations, and the fire department was one of them."
But times have changed, he said, and with the economic downturn, long commutes and busy lives, people have less time to dedicate to calls or training, he said. A spike in state requirements has also created challenges.
"Some years we can have 25 volunteers on a roster and three years later you are down to seven," Yager said.
Volunteers are typically issued a station-specific radio or pager. When a call comes within their boundaries, a tone is issued, everyone's pager goes off and whoever can respond reports to the station.
Medical aids are the most frequent, but structure and vegetation fires, traffic accidents, advanced technical rescue, swift water rescue and hazardous materials are also among responsibilities.
Every engine that rolls out of Sutter County has volunteers on board, Yager said, even when firefighters are responding to fires in another part of the state.
In Camptonville in Yuba County, a 100-square-mile area is covered by an all-volunteer department of 19 people, whose day jobs are in the timber industry, restaurant work and professional emergency medical technicians. Chief Mark Jokerst is an engineer who works from home, which enables him to run out the door whenever his pager sounds.
Ten people usually show up at the station for a call, which number about 100 a year, ensuring a prompt and well-supported response.
"If you are in a dire medical condition and you need first aid, you can get professional first-aid caregivers arriving at your house," Jokerst said. "If you are having a heart attack, that's your only hope. If you can't breathe, we can help."
The trauma volunteers role is not easy though, especially when it's someone they know, he said.
A two-car crash last winter became a double-fatality, despite the fact the firefighters had one person in an air ambulance within 20 minutes of the accident. And in a motorcycle accident a few years ago, it was obvious the person had died on impact, but they were required to perform CPR until the ambulance arrived.
One of the greatest enjoyments is meeting so many people, Jokerst said. When the chaos settles, volunteers are often profusely thanked, and the station receives thank-you cards, sometimes with a check for hundreds or even a few thousand dollars.
"To get a card signed by mom and dad and the patient and lots of nice words, we put them on the wall and everyone tears up," he said.
The Camptonville station is funded through an assessment fee on property taxes, providing about half the $80,000 yearly operating budget. The remainder of funding comes through fundraisers, such as an annual picnic and Valentine's Day dinner, and applying for grants.
All local fire departments can use all the help they can get, Jokerst said.
"There are so many jobs that aren't getting done," he said. "It can be swinging a hammer, taking care of the firehouse, fixing vehicles, and on the administrative level, the job is humongous ... If people want to get involved, they don't have to wear turnouts or look at bloody people, there is plenty of stuff to do — you don't even have to get up in the middle of the night."
Desire to help
When Yager started as a volunteer in Sutter in the early 1980s, when a call came in, the siren would wail from the station and the number of wails told what kind of call it was.
Then a student at Sutter Union High, he said responding meant darting out of class, especially if it was a fire in the Sutter Buttes or a burning structure, but no teachers seemed to mind.
"Everybody who was a member of the volunteer fire department would stop what they are doing and go to the fire station," he said. "You are helping your neighbor."
When Shawn Ormsby turned 16 and got his driver's license, he took over his dad's volunteer spot with the Pleasant Grove department. Now the volunteer chief in East Nicolaus, his crew is a varied one, with a welder, a farmer, four recent high school graduates and three women.
His station averages three calls a week, but sometimes firefighters go for weeks with nothing and then get slammed with six or seven in a day — often to aid people who don't realize they are volunteers.
"They just assume when they pick up the phone and dial those three numbers, it's someone who's getting a fat paycheck and will be there in three or four minutes ... The first words out of their mouth are, 'What took you so long?'" Jokerst said, noting that without the volunteer department, it would take much longer for firefighters from another community to respond.
Ormsby's full-time career is an ambulance EMT, but being chief is a second, much-loved job, albeit unpaid.
"It's just a way for me to give back to the community," he said. "If it wasn't for us, with money the way it is, we wouldn't have anybody."
Today, many volunteers are young fire academy graduates, using the work as a stepping stone to a firefighting career.
Such is the case for Carlos Del Rio, who happily dedicates his time to the Live Oak Fire Department when not working as manager at Northside Fitness.
As someone who grew up around gangs and other bad influences in East Los Angeles, he said firefighting has turned his life around.
"It's a family you don't think you can have," he said of his fellow volunteers and chief.
Living three blocks from the fire station, he said it's where he spends most of his free time. Among the 13 volunteers at the station, he is one of three who respond to the majority of calls.
"It's something I love doing," he said. "It's the most adrenaline rush you can ever think about. I've played football, I've done skydiving and nothing compares to the fire department. It's putting your life on the line for others."