Fire departments ‘more of a family’
Volunteers do it for sense of community, accomplishment
Although recruiting volunteers is sometimes a challenge, the 10 fire departments in the county, all but one of which is all-volunteer, have generally been able to fill their ranks.
Manti Fire Chief Kevin Olsen said that all Manti volunteers are licensed and well-trained. Volunteers are required to get their “red” card, a certification that a firefighter has completed the S-130/S-190 wild land fire suppression training courses, which is required of all firefighters in the country.
After the initial certification, more advanced certifications are “strongly suggested,” but not required. All training is provided by the state.
Most recruiting for volunteers, Olsen said, happens through word of mouth, in church groups and workplaces. “Volunteers are a tough thing to predict,” he said. “You either have a lot or you have zero.”
“The first question people ask (about Manti firefighters) is how much we get paid,” Olsen says. “We try to compensate our guys here and there.”
“Personally, I don’t do it for the money,” he says. “We see ourselves as more of a family than a fire department. The feeling between all of us helps to pull us together as neighbors in the community.”
Last year, volunteer Jason Albee’s daughter, Kelsie, was dealing with liver cancer, prompting the social media movement #albeestrong. In response, Manti Fire forwarded all proceeds from their annual Fireman’s Challenge to the Albee family.
“It was one of the most awesome things I’ve ever experienced as a dad and as a member of the community to see them rally around us and around Kelsie,” Albee said. “It’s just an outstanding caliber of folks that are on our fire department and in our community, how everybody just came to our aid and showed the support that we needed.”
The Gunnison Valley Fire Department, one of the larger departments in the county, consists of 18 to 24 members at a time, and everyone, including Fire Chief Jed Hansen, is a volunteer.
Gunnison Valley is the only fire department in Sanpete County that serves more than one community. Besides Gunnison City, it covers Centerfield, Mayfield, Fayette and Axtell. This has been a heavy year for the department, which averages 50-55 callouts per year.
“I believe what makes Gunnison one of the best fire departments is that all four communities we serve work together to support us and keep us running,” Hansen said.
He started on the department in 1998, joining his brother, Kevin. Kevin has been proudly serving for more than 25 years.
Hansen says that every year, the department will get three to four new recruits. “After the first year, usually two of the four will stay for a good long while.”
Like Manti, Gunnison expects a high level of training in their department. Before next year, Hansen plans to send eight of his volunteers to Alabama for training in the handling of hazardous materials. That will enable him to form the first specialized hazmat team in Sanpete.
The one department that has gravitated from being volunteer to paid is the Ephraim department. “We were never struggling for volunteers,” Fire Chief Kerry Steck says. “The city administration simply decided that they needed to take care of their own.”
Steck is now a full-time city employee. Firefighters receive hourly pay for time in training and time fighting fires.
Steck says there has been no difference in the professionalism and efficiency of his crew from when they were solely volunteers. His department has had 44 callouts this year to date.
Nick Lyon, fire chief of Sterling and a chairman of the Sanpete County Fire District, has been volunteering in Sterling for 15 years, making him the second-longest serving firefighter in the town behind Ty Northrop (16 years).
Sterling averages about 20 callouts per year and is experiencing a “quiet year,” Lyon said.
Serving on the board of the county district has given him a first-had view of the impact of volunteer firefighters around Sanpete. “The fire departments in this county just have amazing people from top to bottom,” he said. “I mean, what an amazing group of guys.”