Nederland Fire Department

A century of service

Barbara Lawlor

Historic Fireman Ned 5/2/2013Nederland Fire Protection District is in its 100th year of providing emergency protection to the Nederland area — a century of local volunteers offering their time, their skills and their bodies to enhance the safety of local mountain residents. Protocol was different back in the day.

A rural fire department consisted of a bunch of neighbors responding to a bell clanging on top of a roof. They grabbed their gloves, maybe a shovel and headed to the fire following a wagon with a tank of water pulled by horses.

There were no rules. They did their best to put out a structure or a wild land fire; often they were not successful. The one thing that the town could count on was the volunteer response.

Last Friday, April 12, NFPD Chief Rick Dirr sat in his office and said he was concerned about the future of the district.

“There is virtually no local interest in volunteering anymore,” he said. “We have fewer volunteers than in the past, and with the wildfire season approaching, I am worried.”

Dirr explained that the volunteers he has often come from out-of-town; applicants who are building a resume, using the district as a stepping stone to somewhere else. These volunteers can work the shifts, but can’t make it to training much less respond to an emergency situation.

Technology and training have made it possible for a handful of career staff to fix most of the medical and rescue situations that come up in town. In a major structure fire or wildfire disaster, many of the volunteers who would respond haven’t been trained specifically for the event.

Chief Dirr said: “We had 412 calls last year. If our crew would have had to be specialists in all the facets of structure, wildland fire, rescue and medical situations, we would be unprepared. It takes years to build experience, and most people can’t put all of that into their lives.”

He wonders how to recruit people to become well-versed in one piece of the pie but still have a life: a job, a family, recreation. Another concern is how to get volunteers in shape for the wildfire season and to make sure that those who are willing to serve the community are strong and healthy enough to do so. Volunteers generally train 160 hours a year; that is a four-week period of eight to five, 40 hours a week.

“Most people can’t make a large time commitment anymore,” Dirr said. “An EMT on a medical call has to go work with a new volunteer with no skills and no experience. It has been almost impossible to get these guys into a training room together. These volunteers don’t even live here.”

Chief Dirr worries that the concept of volunteering has almost disappeared. A core group of people are doing well, but they still have to balance their lives. He knows that in the old days, we didn’t have as many rules and exclusionary criteria. Although some of the people who are doing community service have asked about applying to be a volunteer, Dirr said he does not believe someone who doesn’t demonstrate good judgment, someone who broke the rules, would be desirable to be responsible for public safety.

At the same time, he acknowledges that in spite of the weaknesses of year’s past volunteers, the old timers had a commitment to the service of the community that he rarely sees anymore.

“The value of a tie to the past, the old school group is gone, and the level of service has changed. Ours is a more transient population. The Sugarloaf Fire Department is made of mostly retirees, people who have seen the changes and have time for their community. Nederland is not like that anymore.”

With roughly 25 people on the volunteer roster, Dirr said eight to ten people make 10 percent of the calls, the minimum to be viable. Four of these people are in the 35 to 50 percent response category. A very small, but very active group of people are there half the time.

With new technology and people on call at the station, the response time is better, but many volunteers who live farther out don’t get here until the situation has been taken care of.

This is demoralizing to some of the people who feel less needed. Chief Dirr makes a point of telling new applicants that the district should be fourth on their priority list, behind family, job and recreation. He understands that serving the community is seldom immediate gratification, and he has found that the current generation doesn’t avail themselves of the opportunity to know the satisfaction of a sense of purpose in helping others.

“There is personal value in helping someone else. The rules of engagement have changed over time and as well last the balance between safety and effectiveness. We believe that one should risk nothing if there is nothing to save. Firefighters risk a lot on every call, and we need to balance the risk in between,” said Dirr. “We will risk lives to save a life, but not a home.”

With the wildfire season within a month away, as early as May, Dirr said he is considering forming a wildland-fire-only team, specifically trained to be on call over the summer. Coal Creek Canyon Fire District has trained a wild land team and found it effective.

The wild land crew would have to begin training soon. Volunteers would need the time and ability to show up for the fire. Dirr said he doesn’t want to be a ‘sky is falling’ guy, but the last two decades have indicated that Nederland will be subject to a major wildland fire some year in the future. It will be a catastrophic event and people will be needed to fight fire fast.

“We are better prepared than we have been in the past, but we have more to risk than ever,” said Dirr, referring to more people and more homes.

Wildland fire crew applicants would have to earn a red card, a certification training involving 5 p.m to 10 p.m. classes Monday through Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday. The mandatory one-week training would be augmented by one Saturday a month during the summer and most likely some on the job training in the field.

Dirr said, “Collectively we have to grow.”

As he mused over the coming centennial summer, Dirr is putting out a call to anyone who was part of the fire department’s history, or a member of a firefighter’s family, to contact him at 303-259-9161 to take part in a series of interviews and stories and a display of photos of the past. These accounts will either be written or recorded on video.

A large 100-year celebration will take place on July 4, featuring a water fight between area fire departments, a public picnic and a gathering of those who were there at the beginning.