The thin blue line is often mentioned in articles about our nation’s police who have the responsibility of serving and protecting the American public.
The word “thin” is used in reference to the fact that most of America’s police departments are short-staffed considering the numerous crimes and other emergency calls they respond to in their communities.
After talking to some of our local volunteer fire departments, we believe the term “thin red line” would be appropriate to describe their plight.
Unlike police officers who are paid for the service they provide, the majority of our nation’s firefighters are volunteers who receive little or no compensation for sacrificing their time — not to mention putting their lives on the line — to respond to emergencies. Some volunteer firefighters even have to pay for some of their firefighting gear.
In our discussions with local volunteer fire departments, we were surprised to find out that many of the departments are responsible for areas of East Idaho so vast that we wonder how they can effectively cover it all.
The American Falls Volunteer Fire Department, for example, is responsible for responding to emergencies in a 641-square-mile area with only 19 volunteers on its roster.
And it seems every year there are fewer and fewer people willing to join our local volunteer fire departments while the average age of the current volunteers is increasing. A third of the nation’s volunteer firefighters are older than age 50 and young people aren’t lining up to take their places.
The lack of volunteers coupled with the growing number of emergency calls volunteer fire departments respond to is creating a perfect storm that we believe results in long response times to emergencies and an increasing loss of life and property.
From house fires to wildfires to car accidents to medical emergencies such as heart attacks to even rescuing the neighborhood cat from the top of a tree, our volunteer firefighters do it all with the reward being that they’re providing a vital and often life-saving service to their communities. Most volunteer firefighters receive no pay and the ones who do get compensation only receive a small per-call stipend that often doesn’t even cover their gasoline costs.
Understaffed, overworked by an ever-increasing number of emergency calls and responsible for huge areas of East Idaho, our local volunteer fire departments are in a no-win situation. They’re criticized for taking too long to get to a house fire when in reality they should be praised for getting there at all.
We’re troubled by the plight of these volunteer fire departments and feel that the communities they serve should stop ignoring the problem.
There’s an expectation when an emergency occurs that responders will be there in a timely manner.
Lengthy response times mean not only lost property such as a minor brush fire growing into a neighborhood-consuming inferno, but they also mean lost lives.
There’s an additional safety risk to our volunteer firefighters when they’re overworked and then there’s the fact that much of the firefighting equipment they use is aging and in some cases inadequate.
The communities that rely on volunteer fire departments need to realize the true state of that thin red line and that help is needed.
The model used by the Chubbuck Fire Department — using a mix of volunteer and paid firefighters — is one that we strongly encourage our rural communities here in East Idaho to seriously consider to provide faster response times to emergencies.
Any community with a volunteer fire department tasked with covering a huge area should also consider whether that arrangement really results in fire protection at all.
The Chubbuck Fire Department recently said that it was no longer going to cover areas of north Bannock County outside of Chubbuck city limits because the department no longer feels like it has the necessary resources to do the job.
This is likely going to force rural north Bannock County to start its own fire department.
In the end, by having a firefighting force dedicated to rural north Bannock County, we believe that area will be better served.
It was not an easy decision by the Chubbuck Fire Department to say that it no longer had the resources to cover rural north Bannock County but it was the responsible thing to do.
Rural East Idaho needs to realize that if it wants truly effective fire protection, its volunteer fire departments need more funding and resources. We also all need to accept the fact that more fire departments are needed so that the ones we have aren’t given the impossible task of providing fire protection to vast stretches of East Idaho.
If our rural volunteer fire departments had better equipment and were not responsible for such large expanses of terrain, they would be better for it and East Idaho would be a safer place. And our volunteer fire departments would probably have an easier time attracting recruits.
We’re not only doing a disservice to those dedicated volunteer firefighters but also to everyone who might need to rely on their assistance by allowing the thin red line to grow even thinner.
Our message to East Idaho is let’s start providing our volunteer fire departments with the funding and resources they need and deserve.
It’s a move that will definitely save lives and property.