Chief takes fire for volunteers

Volunteer firefighters Richard Alarid and Jeff Dorais help with an investigation.

April Welsh
Volunteer firefighters Richard Alarid and Jeff Dorais help with an investigation.

DALLAS — Dallas Fire Chief Fred Hertel said Dallas Fire & EMS needs more staff to improve service — which means the department needs more money.

A few members of the Dallas City Council wanted him to recruit more volunteers instead, something that Hertel said is important, but won’t solve the department’s financial needs.

Hertel said to meet the objectives in the Dallas Fire & EMS master plan, approved by the council in 2016, the city has six options: A public safety utility fee; an operating levy; a general obligation bond to cover capital outlay costs and some for operations funding; short-term contracts for services; relinquish the ambulance service or contract out to another entity; and merger, annexation and consolidation with other departments.

At the time of the master plan, fire responses in town took 18 minutes, 90 percent of the time. The goal is to reduce that to eight minutes, Hertel said. He said accomplishing that requires more money and more paid staff.

“It’s also going to cost about $1 million more in staff to reach the end of this plan and accomplish the hiring that’s outlined here,” Hertel said.

Two councilors, Micky Garus and Jackie Lawson, said adding volunteers should be part of that list.

“I would like to see more programs incentivizing and embedded in our younger generation that make them want to be volunteers,” Lawson said.

Garus said he believes the roster can grow, and that he’s talked to department members who say the morale is low among volunteers.

“They feel like they are being intentionally pushed out because we’re trying to expedite moving toward a paid department, because we think that is where we need to be in 10 years or five years,” Garus said. “I know it’s not a permanent fix, and I know that it’s not something that will work standing alone, but I don’t think we are investing enough resources and energy and time trying to do everything we can to retain that before we tell the citizens of Dallas we need a $1 million more.”

Hertel and others in the fire department say that volunteer recruiting plays a large role in what they do, but that hasn’t stopped the decline.

“The trend nationwide is going down. If you are telling me that I need to go out and recruit harder, it’s not going to happen,” Hertel said. “If you are telling me there’s some magic bullet to go get people to volunteer their time, there’s not one that I know of.”

April Welsh, Dallas Fire & EMS volunteer coordinator, said after the meeting that the department took steps to improve recruiting in the last three years.

She said the department has 46 volunteers. Thirty-one for suppression, 11 on support, and four chaplains. She has five more in the volunteer academy and had one more person turn in an application Monday morning.

She said the application process includes having a valid driver’s license, a high school diploma or GED, and a criminal background check. Volunteers have to live in the city of Dallas.

After the initial screening, the department conducts a more extensive background check on work history and references.

“It’s like you are applying for a job,” she said. “Those are state requirements that we have to do a background check.”

Once accepted, volunteers must go through the same training as career firefighters.

“We’ve changed the program around to kind of fit our volunteers’ schedules,” Welsh said. “We’ve gone to more online training and not having so much classroom time.”

Online training allows new volunteers to study on their own time and take online tests as they get ready for fighting fires.

“That doesn’t eliminate them having to come here, though,” Welsh said. “They still have to come to drill. They still have an occasional day during the week and a full day on Saturday.”

Ongoing training requires volunteers to attend 75 percent of drill nights, and then there’s the rapidly rising calls. Welsh said the department responded to 996 fire calls and EMS was called out on another 3,000 incidents. Volunteers put in more than 2,300 hours in training in 2017.

“We are busier than most Portland stations are out of this one station,” Hertel said.

Welsh said the department depends on its volunteers and appreciates their time and dedication.

“In addition to responding to calls, they also have to work their jobs, take care of their families,” Welsh said. “We ask a lot, but they do it. They deliver. They’re pretty remarkable.”

Welsh said when she took over the volunteer coordinator post about three years ago, there wasn’t a recruiting strategy in place.

“Basically, we turned every public event into a recruiting event, and then even when we would do our school tours and have the parents come with the kids, we talk about volunteer aspect,” she said.

She said the department participates in Polk County Bounty Market, Summerfest and the city’s Tuesdays on the Square event during the summer months. Staff and volunteers use any public appearance to recruit.

Department volunteers say they feel supported by Hertel and Welsh, and believe that preparing to hire more paid staff is good for the department.

“I think that Fred is looking out for what is best for the city and being a realist in terms of just being able to get the same amount of volunteers, the amount of hours from them as we have in the past,” said 15-year volunteer Kevin Parnell. “We need to evolve and change.”

Furthermore, the employment landscape in Dallas doesn’t allow for an adequate response, especially during the daytime hours when people are at jobs out of town.

“Times have changed. The make up of our city has changed,” Welsh said. “We don’t have that industry that provides shift work for the people who live in town.”

On Monday, four volunteers responded to a call at about 2 p.m. That’s a larger-than-normal number of volunteers for a weekday afternoon, said volunteer firefighter Deana Coakley-Sallee, a sign of the predicament the department faces.

She joined the department about three years ago, and said she feels her contribution is valued by the department.

“I feel like they’re embracing us because I would not continue to be here if the administration was not embracing us and supporting us,” she said. “I wouldn’t have joined if it wasn’t for Fred and April.”

Commenting has been disabled for this item.