For the past 37 years, the fire scanner has crackled and hissed throughout the night in Dale Rutger’s bedroom. With the volume turned down low so it’s just audible, the familiar buzz of the radio feed has become an easily ignored background noise in his home – until the tones begin.
Attuned to the subtleties of the channel’s frequencies, Rutger knows when the tones are coming before they even start, he said, even when he’s fast asleep
There’s always a pause, a break in the monotonous static hiss and then one after another the high and low frequencies chime
out across the airwaves, alerting him and other North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) firefighters that something is amiss.
A long-time volunteer, Rutger said the calls most often occur between 1 and 3 a.m. He usually spends a few hours on scene before coming home to get ready for his day job. It’s a grueling schedule, and after all these years one would think it was time to retire.
Well, yes and no.
Rutger did retire in February, but it’s only for a season. He’s just biding his time until the state’s mandatory 90-day waiting period ends. Then he’s re-upping.
He may not get paid, but Rutger said what he does is worth every sleepless night and every missed birthday party. “You don’t do it for the praise or the glory,” he said. “You do it for your neighbor,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Rutger began volunteering for the district in October 1975, before the Delta Station 68 fire hall was even built. It was a different system then, he said, with far fewer firefighters manning the rigs.
“There were four of us when I started,” he said. “There was a real need and we learned on the job and by working with other firefighters. We trained with the Lynden guys at first, until we had our own place. I thought I would only be doing it for 25 years, to get the volunteer pension, but it’s become my life.”
He’d driven machinery his whole life, so it made sense to offer his time to drive truck for the station and learn to combat blazes. The first years out were scary, he said, and much has changed since he first became a volunteer. “We didn’t have air tanks when we started out,” Rutger said. “You just went in fast, stayed low and got out fast. It was dangerous, but that’s how we did it. When we did finally get a tank, we shared it. We’ve come a long way since then.” Now all firefighters have their own gear.
For years, Rutger and his squad at station 68 have handled fire and aid calls from Larsen Road to the border, but with the fire district merger they’ve expanded their reach. Now, as part of NWFR District 2, which serves Blaine, Birch Bay and a large area of the northern county, and District 4, which serves Bellingham, they respond to a 200-square-mile area.
“Sometimes, you just can’t get enough water. That’s where we come in,” he said. Their station, which is located in the heart of the fire district and staffed primarily by volunteers, is responsible for manning several of the district’s largest water tenders – huge tankers that haul thousands of gallons of water to the scene. These tankers help fight fires in remote areas that may not have ready access to a fire hydrant, and are an integral part of the fire management system.
NWFR training chief Joe Nooncheseter said the department depends on volunteers like Rutger to provide supplemental support. “We have four career stations that are staffed 24 hours a day,” he said. “We can generally handle the basic fires, but we rely on our volunteers for support.” Volunteers can see up to 70 hours of service a month, Noonchester said.
All volunteer firefighters must attend the fire academy and become EMT certified. Rutger said the strict requirements in place by the state have made it hard for people to volunteer and he’s seen a drop off over the years. “It’s a big commitment to be a volunteer,” Rutger said. “I would love to see a bunch of young people come in, but it’s tough for them to find the time.”
Noonchester agreed. While the department may have a list of eager hopefuls waiting in the wings, few want to be strictly volunteers. “It’s hard for our traditional volunteers to make the time commitment required to volunteer,” he said. “Employers are less flexible with letting volunteers off to fight a fire and our state laws are pretty stringent when it comes to being a firefighter as well. The state makes little differentiation between career and volunteer firefighters, so there’s a lot of training involved. They want all firefighters to be trained at a certain level for safety. Most of the guys and gals we see coming through now want to be a career firefighter and work for a station.” The drop off in volunteer firefighters is a nationwide trend, fire chief Henry Hollander added.
But for Rutger, it’s never been about the career. It’s about doing what you can to serve your community. With 37 years as a volunteer under his belt, Rutger, who is now 64, has seen it all. “I’ve delivered babies, fought fires and worked on some pretty tragic plane crashes,” he said. “I’ve even performed CPR on my best friend. These are your neighbors, the people you know. Who else is going to get up out of the warm bed in the middle of a snowstorm to pull someone out of the ditch?”
Rutger said he’s still passionate about the work, even though over the years the fire hose has gotten heavier. He’s no longer allowed to enter fires, per doctor’s orders, but he still helps in any way he can. He just can’t seem to stay away.
“I keep an eye on the younger guys, set up trainings, do the paperwork and I’m on the scene,” he said. “Some people can’t handle the job,” he said, “But it’s my life. I can go to a car wreck and go home and have dinner and then go to bed afterward and get up and do it again the next day. My wife says I’ll never quit.”