SOLDIERS GROVE - The Soldiers Grove Volunteer Fire Department (SGVFD) is actively seeking new recruits to fill out its roster. Like many rural volunteer organizations, the fire department has experienced a dwindling supply of new volunteers.
The department holds meetings on the first Monday of every month, starting at 6:30 p.m. This is an excellent time for interested individuals to learn more about what volunteering entails and to talk to current members of the team.
October is ‘Fire Safety Month,’ and the department plans to hold a fundraising, recruitment and awareness event in observance.
Soldiers Grove Fire Chief Ben Clason said that the current roster is at 16, with his goal to have 24 members, up to a maximum of 30.
“Our limitations in the number of individuals we can have on the roster come from the expenses related to outfitting and training,” Clason explained. “A fire fighting uniform costs us $2,500, and it costs $800 to pay for new member training, which comes to $3,300 per new recruit.”
Clason is concerned that with volunteer numbers low, response times could be longer and public safety in the community could suffer. Also, declining service levels can lead to increases in property insurance rates for local homeowners.
“Fire departments are graded on many categories that can impact homeowners property insurance,” Clason explained. “We report on every call to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, which maintains a national data base for every fire department in the United States. The statistics on level of service in the community are factored in to local property insurance rates.”
Ultimately, if the department cannot meet the guidelines, they might have to combine with another area department, which would then have to cover a larger area.
“A lot of people drive out of the area to work during the week,” Clason explained. “That means on any given day, we may have fewer individuals available to respond to calls. And it can get pretty difficult too over the various holidays, which is why we need a larger roster.”
Can’t have it both ways
Volunteer first responder organizations continue to survive, if not thrive, in rural areas of Wisconsin. For smaller, less wealthy communities, it can be a cost-effective option.
Rural folk tend to have different skill sets, and more equipment and experience operating equipment than their city neighbors. There is a “can-do” mentality, with a point of view that we can “take care of ourselves.”
Most recently, we’ve seen it with the ‘Cajun Navy,’ that has jumped in to perform rescues of folk in Houston in the flooding associated with Hurricane Harvey. And indeed, we’ve seen it locally when the ‘Kickapoo Navy’ launches around here when there is flooding in our valley.
“It’s so inspiring to see the response of ordinary Americans in a time of crisis,” Clason commented. “In times of crisis, 90 percent of the people will pitch in to help. It’s truly America at its finest.”
In bigger cities, firefighters and EMTs are usually city employees, earning a good living, and volunteers aren’t required. However, that cost is borne by city taxpayers, resulting in higher taxes.
In order for smaller, rural communities to continue to avoid additional taxation, or have services suffer, members of the community have to step up and volunteer. We can’t have it both ways.
All members of the SGVFD are volunteers, who are paid eight dollars per call. The department is funded through taxes from the village and townships it serves, and through grants.
“Safe to say,” Clason said, “we’re not in this for the money. It’s a personal feeling of wanting to give back to your community that makes it work. If one of my loved ones makes the call, I hope there is someone available to respond. That’s why I volunteer. The way I see it, no one will take better care of you than your neighbor.”
It takes dedication
Standards for firefighter training and recertification have evolved over the years. These days, the training requirements and resulting time commitment can be difficult for people to juggle along with full-time work, a commute, and a personal life.
Fire chief Clason is a dedicated individual, who juggles running a construction business, leading the Soldiers Grove Volunteer Fire Department, swift water rescue deployments and training, fatherhood, and currently schooling to become an Emergency Medical Technician.
“The culture of volunteering is changing, but some things always stay the same” Clason said. “You might get into it because your parent or grandparent did it, but I think for the most part it is wanting to have a sense of pride in giving back to your community. Everyone needs to volunteer for something – if we all do it, the world will be a happier place to live in.”
Firefighting is a physically demanding activity, and sometimes can be dangerous. The rural fire departments need the young folk in the community to step up and lend their youthful vigor to public safety, with each generation picking up the baton in their turn.
Cameron Steyer, 17, Soldiers Grove, is one of the youngest members of the department. “I signed up because I want to help my community. Other young folks like me see people who pitch in, and I think we should all find a way to help.”
Clason explained that one challenge the department is facing is the increasing requirements for training and recertification.
“There never used to be so much training required. While the training is necessary, and great strides have been made in firefighting technique and safety, older members of the department never had to do so much,” Clason explained. “Since their age dictates they aren’t going to be fighting fires for another 20 years, rather than getting the training, they’re in many cases choosing to retire.”
Steyer is a dedicated young volunteer, but he also cited some of the challenges he experiences in his new role. “Most of the training classes take place 45 minutes to an hour away from where I live,” he said. “For a high school student with classes and sports, getting to trainings is hard even though the school gives me permission to attend.”
Clason reports he is currently increasing his outreach to the area high schools as part of his recruitment effort.
“It makes sense for the young folk in the community to get involved,” Clason said. “When a 20-year veteran retires, it’s always a sad moment. What you see is all that experience and knowledge walking out the door. We need to have young folk step up to learn from the veterans, and pass the knowledge along.”
John Young, Soldiers Grove, is currently the longest serving member of the department. He signed up in 1955, serving so far for 62 years.
“When I was kid, there was a lot less to do, so I decided to volunteer to help my community,” Young said.
Young said that over the years, being a volunteer had taken away from his time with his family, but he is proud of his department and proud of having given back over the years.
“My model is people helping people. When that happens, it is the greatest thing ever,” Young said. Young has also served on the board of Couleecap over the years, and has a strong volunteer ethic.
Young advises the young folk of the community to consider volunteering for the fire department. “If you can give the time, the knowledge and experience you will gain will be of benefit both to the community, and in every aspect of your life,” Young explained. “You really get to learn a lot when you take the training, and the experience will make a man or woman out of a kid.”