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Ralston Valley Volunteer Fire Department (RVVFD) Rick Wyatt raced out the front door of the Target store where he worked as soon as his beeper...

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18. Ralston Valley Volunteer Fire Department (RVVFD) Rick Wyatt raced out the front door of the Target store where he worked as soon as his beeper sounded. In his pickup truck he heard the call on his special radio scanner, “Highway 18 Fire Department, there is a grass fire at the old McCullough place. That’s a mile down the old dirt road just past the Wilson house.” The directions might appear cryptic to someone who had not grown up around Ralston Valley, but it was all Rick needed to know. Upon arriving at the fire, Rick quickly pulled on his fire-retardant bunker pants and boots. He left his Nomex hood, helmet, and fire pants in the back of his truck— he would not need them for this fire. Less than 10 minutes from the time the call was placed, Rick and 20 other members of the Ralston Valley Volunteer Fire Department (RVVFD) arrived at the old McCullough place. They were able to put out the fire in less than half an hour, but not before a football-field-size patch of grass was scorched. Their quick response saved the neighbor’s barn and kept the fire from spreading to a nearby forest. A third straight year of drought has the crew on high alert. Rick threw his gear in the back of his truck and headed back to finish his shift at Target. He had worked there as a department manager for two years, ever since he graduated from the local state college with a marketing degree. As he drove, Rick thought about what RVVFD Chief Fran Holland recently asked him to do. Over the last few years, the fire department had more to do but fewer people to do it with. So Chief Holland asked Rick to draw up a marketing plan to recruit new volunteers. Rick had already started to gather information for the marketing plan. From an online search he found that RVVFD was one of an estimated 30,000 volunteer fire departments in the United States and that these departments had almost a million volunteers. Rick was surprised that more than 75 percent of all U.S. firefighters were volunteers. Ralston Valley, a small city of just over 100,000 and hours from a big city, only had volunteer firefighters. There are 48 firefighters currently in the RVVFD—down from 55 five years ago. While there was a surge of interest in the year following the terrorist attacks in 2001, only a few of those volunteers remain. Over time, RVVFD has found that about half of new recruits quit before their three-year anniversary. Those that remain usually stay with the department until they can’t keep up with the job’s physical demands. Fran Holland has been chief for the last three years. She replaced long-time chief, Ken Reeb, who retired after being with RVVFD for more than 40 years—the last 10 as chief. The current volunteers include 44 men and four women; more than half of the force is over 40 years old, and Rick is one of only five members younger than 30. Almost all of them started volunteering while still in their 20s or
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early 30s. The crew represents all walks of life, and their ranks include a law- yer, a real estate salesperson, a college professor, a carpenter, a stay-at-home mom, and a few guys from the local factory. Many entered firefighting for the thrill of it or because they hoped the experience might help them land a paid firefighting job in a bigger city. But most of the crew stay with it because they feel good about giving back to their community, view it as a hobby, and enjoy the camaraderie with the other firefighters. Being a volunteer firefighter is much different than Rick thought it would be when he started. Last year he counted 238 hours volunteering for RVVFD, but less than a third of that was actually responding to emergencies. And fewer than half of the emergencies were actual fires. He spent about a quarter of this time in required training and drills. He had to be trained for the many different possible calls, including car accidents, hazardous chemical spills, and terrorist attacks. Another 20 percent of his time was spent in meetings and a similar amount helping with fund-raising. Depending upon financial needs, RVVFD holds at least four fund-raising events a year—some years six or eight. These include annual activities like a chili cook-off, pancake breakfast, and booth at the county fair—and as- needed events like pie auctions, turkey shoots, and basketball tournaments. The biggest requirement to be a volunteer firefighter is the willingness to make the time commitment. Rick’s time commitment and allocation of hours is typical of all the fire- fighters at RVVFD. Volunteers have to be able to attend at least 80 percent of the twice monthly drills—scheduled on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month. Firefighters also have to live or work near the city of Ralston Valley so they can quickly respond to an emergency. They also have to be at least 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license. There is a physical ability test to make sure that firefighters can stand the rigors of the job. While one doesn’t have to be a weightlifter, the job requires volunteers to be in good physical shape. RVVFD has never really had a marketing strategy or any formal promotion efforts. Most of Rick’s fellow volunteers heard about RVVFD through word of mouth. People are al- ways curious when a volunteer firefighter runs out the door from work or suddenly leaves a party. These occasions give volunteers a chance to tell others about what they do. Some- times those questions bring someone out to see drills and to apply to become a volunteer. One of Rick’s high school friends was a volunteer and he encouraged Rick to join up while Rick was in his junior year of college. But still, awareness of volun- teer firefighting in the Ralston Valley area is very low. When Rick tells friends about his volunteer work, most are surprised and think the town has full-time paid staff fighting fires. Rick
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