Volunteers a priority for new fire commissioner

Published on Wed, Jan 22, 2014 by Quinn Welsch

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Upping the number of volunteer firefighters is at the top of newly elected North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) fire commissioner Dean Berkeley’s list of priorities, and he was in good company at the district’s monthly commissioners’ meeting on January 16 when he was sworn in alongside eight new volunteers.

“I’d like to get the strength back in the volunteer halls,” Berkeley said, noting that the stations in Custer and Northwood are currently empty. “I’m still learning where we need the assistance.”

Of the 13 stations in the fire district, only four of them are staffed full time, said district fire chief Ron Anderson. The district has around 50 full-time firefighters and 70 volunteer firefighters, he said, but they’d like to increase the volunteer force by an additional 30.

“We still have a pretty weak [volunteer] system, but with chief Anderson helping, I think we have a very strong team coming,” Berkeley said.

Anderson and Berkeley said they plan to take a more proactive and visible approach to recruiting volunteers by going door to door and making community introductions over the weekends and after the workday. 

“I have a lot more belief in the north Whatcom system than I did when I first joined,” Berkeley said. “There were some very good changes even before [I was elected].”

One of those changes includes Anderson’s implementation of exit interviews for firefighters leaving the area. While some firefighters relocate for personal reasons, Anderson said he’d like to know if there is anything the fire district can do to retain firefighters.

Part of the reason the district hasn’t been able to recruit or retain firefighters in recent years is due to new criteria that volunteer firefighters must meet, Anderson said.

“Thirty years ago, all they were looking for was a warm body,” he said. “The standards have gotten much more difficult.”

Some of those standards include medical examinations and extra training and certifications, which apply to volunteer and full-time firefighters alike, and require them to attend a fire academy and obtain EMT certification.

Volunteers are essential for underdeveloped rural areas such as Birch Bay since the fire district can only take on so many full-time firefighters due to the assessed property value in the district. “Our area is not developed enough to afford to have full-time firefighters sitting there in a fire station waiting for a fire call to come in,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be 50, 75, 100 years before this area would ever have a full-time fire department.”

“I still have a lot to learn and understand about what we can do and what we can’t do and what our limitations are,” Berkeley said.

Berkeley’s career began as a volunteer firefighter in Skagit County’s Fire District 8 in 2002. He transferred to NWFR in 2008 and successfully ran for commissioner last year. Berkeley works for West Coast Engineering in Sedro-Woolley, a metal fabrication shop that specializes in creating traffic and streetlight poles. “I think he’s going to be a good fit – he has a lot of energy and passion for the position,” Anderson said. “We’ll see how he does.”

The board of commissioners will meet again on Thursday, February 20. 

For more information on the fire district, visit nwfrs.net.