Douglas County firefighters seek Somebody
When explosions rocked a cabin May 19 east of Solon Springs, "somebody" was there to battle the flames.
Throughout Douglas County, when cars collide, wildfires spring up or hunters go missing, "somebody" is there to help. Saturday, volunteer fire departments from throughout Douglas County are asking local residents to be that "somebody."
"There's no greater feeling than to help your neighbor when they're having a bad day," said Maple Fire Chief Mike Lundeen.
The annual Be Somebody event, part awareness campaign and part recruitment tool, has been sending a steady message for years.
"We're trying to get somebody to fill the boots at your local fire department," Lundeen said.
Be Somebody runs 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in Brule. More than 30 departments will bring in apparatus and rigs for the public to view, including a burn trailer with live fire and driving simulator. Firefighters will give demonstrations to highlight different aspects of the job. Children's activities also are available.
The need for volunteer firefighters and first responders is on the rise nationally, according to Phillip Rach, assistant dean and paramedic program director at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, New Richmond.
"Volunteerism is declining steadily throughout the United States," Rach said, in response to the economy improving.
Fire departments in Douglas County have felt that impact.
"I know a lot of chiefs and departments out there; they don't know where they're going to find the people," Lundeen said. "A lot of them are aging communities, and there are not a lot of young people."
That's of particular concern for first responders. Lundeen said about 80 percent of the Maple Volunteer Fire Department's calls are medical related. The town of Oakland gets an average of 90 calls a year, and about 70 of them are medical, according to firefighter and former chief Randy Martin.
"The demand on Emergency Medical Services is increasing but the volunteerism is decreasing," Rach said, and true volunteer departments just can't meet those demands. Many departments are making the change to paid on-call medical service, Rach said.
Martin realized the impact of that shortage two years ago. He was listening to his pager when a call came out — a patient with difficulty breathing. The Douglas County Communication Center paged the first town's Emergency Medical Responders. None replied. The page went out to a neighboring town. The calls were met with silence. The page went out to a third town. An EMR from that town responded.
"Put yourself in that position of having a hard time breathing and nobody's coming," Martin said. "When you dial 911, you expect someone to be there. It hits home."
Medical calls also go out to Gold Cross Ambulance, but local first responders can often get to an incident sooner due to logistics.
Depending on the time of day and who's available, Lundeen said, call-outs to multiple towns can happen.
"We're all individual departments, but parts of a whole," he said. "We're one big family."
They work together routinely. When a structure fire is called in, for example, three fire departments are automatically dispatched right away, and the incident commander can call additional departments as needed.
It takes commitment and many hours of training to be a volunteer. Throughout the county, some fire departments have long rosters, others are sparse.
"We're all in this together," Lundeen said. "It's a problem we all have to solve. If one's hurting, we're all hurting."
A volunteer firefighter since 1993, he has seen the Maple department's roster rise and fall like a roller coaster. Currently, the department has 16 volunteer firefighters, 10 who show up on a regular basis. Seven of them are EMRs.
"I'm proud of every one of the members I have, they do a great job," Lundeen said. Yet they can still be short-handed some days.
At one time the Oakland department had 12 medical first responders on the roster, Martin said. Now they have seven, but only three are active. The department's newest recruit stepped up about two years ago, and is now chief.
Martin said he's not trying to guilt residents into volunteering; he just wants to make them aware.
"People don't know this is happening," he said.
For more than 30 years, Martin and his wife Debbie have been volunteer firefighters and EMRs in Oakland. They've developed a bond with fellow firefighters over that time, in all the departments.
"We work together as a team, with law enforcement too," Martin said. "You make such great friends. I wish people could know all the great connections we've made over the years."
But as the number of EMRs decreases, each town has to rely more on its neighbors to cover medical emergencies.
"Let's not just say 'Be Somebody,' let's tell people what's happening," Martin said. "This is happening. I think people should know."
The Be Somebody campaign may not end with a slew of volunteers. But it's a chance to make the public aware, and offer them a chance to step in and be that Somebody for their neighbors.
"We're planting the seed out there," Lundeen said. "Hopefully it grows."
To volunteer as a firefighter or EMR, call (888) 926-1676 or contact your local fire department.