Volunteer firefighters from throughout Inyo County use the training facility in Bishop during a training session in 2009. Fire departments are in need of volunteers ‚Äď firefighters, EMTs and other emergency response personnel ‚Äď and are looking into incentive programs to retain the trained help. Photo by Mike Bodine
There is a shortage of trained, volunteer first responders in the area. From firefighters to emergency medical technicians, Inyo County needs more able-bodied people to help out, and it needs a way to keep the ones it has.
But, as stressed by more than one local leader, ‚ÄúIf someone calls 911, someone will answer that call ‚Äď the ambulance will still arrive.‚ÄĚ
According to some fire chiefs in the county, many people are struggling just to keep their head above water financially and find it harder and harder to devote time to first-responder jobs for little to no compensation. Typical compensation for a call for a volunteer emergency medical technician is $10 to $15.
There are also more regulations and costs associated with becoming certified that are impacting volunteer numbers. ‚ÄúWith the increasing demands of certification, sometimes it can be more of a burden than reward,‚ÄĚ Tecopa Fire Chief Paul Postle said.
But, there is a beam of light through the smoke. Olancha Fire Chief Steve Davis is working with consultants to try and secure a grant that would offer a monthly stipend and other benefits for emergency volunteers. Davis said he hopes the benefits will provide some incentives for volunteers to stay on board, but he also said ‚Äúmore bodies‚ÄĚ and more people willing to volunteer would be just as good.
Davis said the lack of retention at local volunteer fire departments is not necessarily a compensation issue but also one of time.
To become a certified emergency medical technician takes hundreds of hours of training, travel time and then years on the job to become both ‚Äúcompetent and confident,‚ÄĚ Postle said. There are also new, tougher exams for certification and mandatory annual training.
Davis and Postle said that a new computer-based national certification test is scaring off some who have completed training. Lone Pine Fire Chief Le Roy Kritz recently offered an accelerated training course and graduated 22. Postle said the 22 graduates are a testament to the excellent teachers that Davis and Kritz are.
But of those 22 graduates, only four have attempted the national test, and two have passed.
A volunteer will also have to have a day job that allows that person to leave at a moment‚Äôs notice for an unknown amount of time. Postle said that employers along the U.S. 395 corridor are sympathetic, just as employers are in remote parts of the county, but there are less able-bodied employees in rural Inyo, making it harder to let an employee leave on a whim.
Davis explained there are also ever-increasing responsibilities on people with work and family commitments. ‚ÄúPeople want to serve the community but there are so many more demands.‚ÄĚ
When asked what the solution is, Postle answered with a long pause. He said his lack of words reflects the sentiment of the Inyo County emergency medical care committee. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not sure what to do right now.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThe ideal fix is more volunteers ‚Äď we need people to show up and stay,‚ÄĚ Davis said.
Postle said the best thing that can be done now is to get the word out that volunteers are needed. And not necessarily trained EMTs, but also firefighters and others. There are currently 140 volunteers in the county.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs probably somewhere for everyone to volunteer,‚ÄĚ Davis said.
Davis said the problem is not unique to Inyo as it is getting harder to retain volunteers in rural areas nationwide. And in these unprecedented economic times, Davis said he has ‚Äúnot been able to identify‚ÄĚ funding sources to backfill these underfunded resources. And, he said a new tax to help fund the emergency resources would probably not be very popular with voters in this poor economy.
For more information on becoming a volunteer, contact your local fire department.