COLUMBIA FALLS — When Karl Weeks started volunteering with the Columbia Falls Fire Department 23 years ago, he’d get called to duty every few days for things like car accidents, suspicious smoke or the occasional structure fire.
Now the calls for help arrive daily.
As Montana’s population continues to grow, fire departments in communities large and small are being asked to do more every year. But the increase in calls is especially hard on smaller, volunteer departments. As a result, more towns are hiring full-time staff, including Columbia Falls, which hired its first three paid firefighters in December. Jade Thomas, Ryan Smith and Brad Peterson all started a few days after Christmas, joining Weeks, who’s been the full-time fire chief since 2020.
In 2000, when Weeks started volunteering, the department responded to about 170 calls each year. But over the last two decades, that’s increased, especially in the last two years. In 2020, the Columbia Fall Fire Department responded to 305 calls; in 2022, it responded to 357 calls (The fire department doesn’t do medical calls unless the local ambulance service, Three Rivers EMS, isn’t available.) That’s a 17% increase.
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Weeks said the department has been fortunate in that it has generally had a strong pool of volunteers, with 25 currently on its roster). But volunteer firefighters aren’t always available.
“We have a really great group of volunteers,” Weeks said. “But it’s been tough to respond to calls when people are working Monday through Friday, nine to five.”
Weeks said it was easier to collect a full crew years ago when many volunteers were shift workers at places like Plum Creek Timber Company or the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, both of which had managers who’d let employees leave when a call for help came in. A few years ago, when city officials started noticing the department was having trouble responding to calls during the week, the City Council began planning to hire full-time staff to fill the gaps. Two of the new positions are paid for by Columbia Falls’ resort tax and the third is paid for by the Columbia Falls Rural Fire District (the town has had a full-time fire chief since the early 2000s).
While Columbia Falls still has a strong core of volunteers, other small towns aren’t so lucky.
Travis Walker is a captain with the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department and president of the Montana State Volunteer Firefighters Association. Not only is the number of calls in his community going up (from 150-175 annually when he started 17 years ago to 250-275 annually in recent years), but the number of volunteers is going down.
“Recruitment and retention are really, really tough,” Walker said. “I mean you’re asking these people to give up a lot.”
Besides being called to duty at all hours of the day, volunteer firefighters are required to log many hours of training. Walker said lots of people just don’t have that type of time to commit to their community anymore. One perk for volunteers at many departments is that they can get a retirement stipend of about $300 per month after 20 years of service.
Rich Cowger is the fire chief in Columbus, west of Billings, and chairperson of the Montana State Fire Chiefs’ Association. He said what’s happening in Columbia Falls and Hamilton is not unique to those communities, and that departments across the state are dealing with the same predicament.
Montana has about 400 fire departments. About a dozen in the state’s larger cities are staffed by full-time firefighters, another two dozen are a hybrid of paid staff and volunteers, and the rest are all-volunteer. Cowger said one challenge of the hybrid model is ensuring that the volunteers still feel needed and wanted when a department starts hiring full-timers. He also said that even departments that offer full-time positions are having trouble filling those spots in a tight labor market.
“I wish there was a silver bullet to solve it all,” he said.
Back in Columbia Falls, Weeks said, the first few weeks of the hybrid model have worked well. Many projects around the station that have been ignored for years are getting done.
Peterson, 55, worked for F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber prior to being hired by the department in Columbia Falls, and had been a volunteer firefighter there for more than 25 years. Like many volunteer firefighters, he signed up because he loved the craft and wanted to serve his community. Being able to do the job full-time now has been a dream come true.
“I’ve wanted to do this for as long as I’ve lived,” he said.
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