Opinion

BIFD seeks more volunteer firefighters

What do a teacher, business owner, engineer, lawyer, construction worker and biochemist have in common? They are all volunteer firefighters in the Bainbridge Island Fire Department. Thus, while the careers held by our volunteers are very diverse, our volunteers are united by their motivation of service to the community.

While the BIFD continues to rely on volunteers, population growth on the island has dictated the need for a core group of paid firefighters to staff the stations. Most of the career firefighters were once BIFD volunteers, however, and many of our volunteers have gone on to careers as professional firefighters elsewhere as well. 

The benefit to the department and the citizens of Bainbridge Island is significant. The cost of volunteer training is minimal when compared to the expense of having an entirely paid staff large enough to respond to the number of calls generated by a community the size of the island.

Retention and recruitment of firefighters remains a challenge for volunteer fire departments across the country. Statistics show that the number of volunteer firefighters has declined nationwide as much as 10 percent over the last 20 years.

Bainbridge Island is no exception to this trend. The island has experienced dramatic changes in the last 15 years and many of these changes have affected volunteers and how they respond to emergency incidents. For example, increased property values have changed the demographics of the island. Young working-class individuals, who are normally a key source of volunteers, often can’t afford to live here. New high-end homes are usually purchased by older buyers, who are generally less likely to become volunteer firefighters.

In addition, more and more residents are commuters and are not on the island during the day and have limited availability during the night because of family obligations and work responsibilities, making being a volunteer firefighter difficult at best.

Moreover, with a population of more than 22,000 covering 28 square miles of land, the number of emergency responses on Bainbridge Island has grown steadily. Since 2000, medical aid calls have increased by 43 percent. This demand keeps both the department and citizens of Bainbridge Island dependent on our nearly 30 volunteers.

Federal and state laws mandate the level of training necessary to become a volunteer firefighter. After physical and psychological testing, newly accepted recruits attend fire suppression training classes for four months. Training consists of extensive classroom sessions and practical training exercises with fire suppression apparatus, hoses, self-contained breathing apparatus, chainsaws and ladders. Throughout the training, recruits are tested to ensure satisfactory skills and technical abilities. Training culminates with a session at the Fire Training Academy in North Bend, where the recruits complete a set of live fire exercises. Success at this intense testing results in graduation from recruit school and Basic Firefighter 1 certification.

But the training does not stop there. Because BIFD firefighters also respond to medical emergencies, volunteers are required to get their Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification through department-sponsored training with Kitsap County EMS. In addition, in order to maintain and improve their skills, all members of the department attend drills every Tuesday night. With the extensive education and training our members receive, most citizens wouldn’t detect a difference between those individuals who are paid and those who volunteer, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Bainbridge Island Fire Department is a family. Our members see the tradition of volunteers within the department, but even more than that, they see brothers and sisters in pursuit of the same thing – service to our community.

If your are interested in joining the elite group of men and women who serve Bainbridge Island, contact me through our website at www.bifd.org or by calling (206) 842-7686.

Jay Rosenberg is the volunteer program coordinator for the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.

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