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Staffing Oklahoma's fire departments is particularly challenging in rural areas

Chief Darren Alexander of the Cedar Country Fire Department.
Peggy Dodd
/
OPMX
Chief Darren Alexander of the Cedar Country Fire Department.

Aug. 3, 2012 is a day Cedar Country Fire Chief Darren Alexander will never forget.

He and the other seven volunteer firefighters had no idea what would happen over the course of the next week in their community in south Cleveland County.

Two fires started in Cedar Country and Slaughterville’s districts. It was 112 degrees, with 8% humidity and wind out of the south at 30 mph.

“We knew we were going to have a problem,” Alexander said.

One fire was contained, but the other exploded into a large wildland fire. Cedar Country called in mutual aid departments and task forces. 62 departments showed up. Even with that help, Cedar Country’s 8 firefighters worked for a week to stop the fire.

The fire burnt 10,000 acres, destroyed 200 structures and one life was lost Alexander said. After the fire calmed and just ash remained, Alexander said the department and the community changed.

“We started seeing people coming in and trying to help and our department almost doubled. Like 15,16,17 people after that situation,” Alexander said. “Having that fire, I think, brought everybody’s mind to the forefront. You know, maybe these guys need some help out here.”

That’s just one example of a time where Cedar Country, a rural fire department in Cleveland County, would experience a lull in volunteers. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, 65% offirefighters are volunteers nationally.

A 2021 photo of Christie Smith, a full-time nurse and volunteer firefighter with the Cedar Country Fire Department, and David Thompson, safety officer with the Slaughterville Fire Department, cool down after extinguishing a hotspot that flared in Cleveland County.
Joe Wertz
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
A 2021 photo of Christie Smith, a full-time nurse and volunteer firefighter with the Cedar Country Fire Department, and David Thompson, safety officer with the Slaughterville Fire Department, cool down after extinguishing a hotspot that flared in Cleveland County.

Staffing

In Oklahoma,80% of the state’s fire departments are entirely volunteer, including Cedar Country. A lot is expected of volunteers, beyond the typically physical requirement. You’ll have your day job obligations, family responsibilities and training requirements on top of simply being a firefighter.

“The problems that we’re seeing is that you get people that think it looks good on paper until you’re going into a burning building and then it changes everything, and then they kind of lose their aggressiveness,” Alexander said.

One problem is timing. Departments depend on whoever they possibly can during the day, since most volunteers are working.

“I only have one guy in my department that's retired. So you rely on people that work second shift,” Alexander said. “We rely on people that just happen to be off that day. Fires in Oklahoma don’t schedule themselves from 8 to 5. We’ve learned that.”

Another is the age of volunteers. Alexander said because of family obligations like caring for children leave a gap in the ages of volunteers.

“(Volunteers) age out or they decide to do it when they have more time on their hands, when they’re not raising kids. We got a group of people that are about 18 to 24 and we’ve got a group of people that are about 35 to 55,” Alexander said.

Joe Bennett, director of the OSU-OKC Fire Protection program that provides training to firefighters, said working two jobs just to get by also draws attention away from volunteering. For rural fire departments, it can be more difficult to attract younger people.

Joe Bennett, director of the Fire Protection program at OSU-OKC.
Peggy Dodd
/
OPMX
Joe Bennett, director of the Fire Protection program at OSU-OKC.

“One of the things that they have is that the younger folks are looking to move to the city, so they have less numbers to draw on for volunteerism,” Bennett said. “We’ve kind of gotten away from teaching volunteerism to the up and coming folks, so there’s just not as much interest.”

So who is typically a rural, volunteer firefighter? Bennett said it’s someone who is 45-years-old or older, a lot of whom are farmers, welders or in similar professions.

Training

When the Purcell Fire Department Police Chief Greg Cypert took his first fire protection training course 25 years ago, he completed 40 hours. Now, that class is 96 hours. Today, Cypert said a volunteer must complete that first fire protection course, then an EMT class that's 220 hours, then a second fire protection training that is another 40 hours.

“It just goes on and on. I mean, you have extrication, you have hazmat, all this stuff they have to get. Essentially for the first year in their department, they’re doing nothing but going to school,” Cypert said.

The increased training firefighters complete now is making it harder for smaller departments to obtain those certifications according to Cypert. The training is beneficial, but can lead to departments being short handed while getting an education.

Purcell Fire Department Chief Greg Cypert.
Peggy Dodd
/
OPMX
Purcell Fire Department Chief Greg Cypert.

Cypert said it takes about two weeks for someone to complete the first course in Stillwater at Oklahoma State University, where Purcell receives their training.

“If I have to send a guy to Firefighter I for 96 hours, he’s gone two weeks, so then I have nobody to cover shift here,” Cypert said. “They have to have the training, but it’s still hard to make ends meet here while they’re getting their training.”

Cypert said that the training itself can discourage potential volunteers, because they might not have time to complete the hours necessary with family obligations or children.

Bennett, who has instructed several of those training courses, said OSU-OKC’s Fire Protection program results in an associate’s degree. He said in fire protection, the first course a student takes in the first semester, students will learn everything they need to know to become a career or volunteer firefighter.

The program does encourage volunteerism in its students.

“What we do is we encourage them to become volunteer firefighters while they’re attempting to get hired by a career department. Some of them follow that path, and others don’t,” Bennett said.

OSU-OKC also hosts outreach training programs where instructors go to communities and teach training courses. Recently, Bennett said participants are mostly volunteer firefighters and they also receive college credit.

Money problems

In the Purcell-manned firehouse, Cypert holds up one of his firefighter’s jackets, just one piece of gear needed for fire fighting. A complete set is about $3500 according to Cypert.

“Nothing is cheap in the fire service,” Cypert said.

Purcell has two fire stations, though the most southern one is unmanned because of staffing issues. This department is half paid staff, a total of 12, with about 14 volunteers. Cypert said increased funding to be able to hire more staff is needed to support fire departments.

“Everybody is shorthanded, whether it’s volunteer, full time from Oklahoma City to the smallest department in the state. Everybody’s shorthanded,” Cypert said.

Volunteers are typically unpaid, though some municipalities offer a stipend for their volunteers, something Alexander said would “help a bunch” for his department.

Bennett said the stipend depends on the specific fire department and typically ranges from $5 to $10 per call. Others have paid shifts.

Cypert said, in his experience, it wouldn’t be a paycheck that would bring volunteers in.

“They do it because they love what they do,” he said. “The pay usually is insignificant to them.”

What it takes

There’s also a tremendous personal toll.

“I’ve missed a lot of birthdays. I missed a wedding anniversary, I’m still married,” Alexander said, talking about what firefighters might have to leave when taking a call. “Your family has to be very, very forgiving and very understanding of what you do and why you do it.”

Alexander said sometimes it's the job itself that strays people away from the career. Instead of feeling like they’re obligated, Alexander said a volunteer needs to join a department because they want to.

“The problems that we’re seeing is that you get people that think it looks good on paper until you’re going into a burning building,” Alexander said. “Then, it changes everything and they kind of lose their aggressiveness.”

Cypert, similar to Alexander, believes that a volunteer firefighter is something you have to be cut out for and willing to do.

“It has to be in somebody’s blood,” Cypert said. “They have to want to do it.”

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

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