Volunteer firefighters play important roles in the operation of area fire departments

A noble calling

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“I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save lives.”This quote by Edward F. Croker, written long before women were also firefighters, still rings true for many in emergency services today.

Washington State Volunteer Firefighter Recognition Week was recently commemorated. In the Camas and Washougal areas, many men and women serve countless unpaid hours as firefighters, responding to calls at all hours of the day and night.

Since both the city of Washougal Fire Department and East County Fire and Rescue rely heavily on volunteers, the Post-Record is highlighting some of them and what they do for the community.

East County Fire & Rescue

East County Fire & Rescue, a rural district which covers 60 square miles in unincorporated Camas and Washougal currently has 38 volunteer firefighters and 11 paid, according to Chief Scott Koehler.

“We absolutely could not provide the kind of service we do without these folks,” he said. “Volunteers make up about 80 percent of our workforce.”

In 2010, the volunteers saved the fire district approximately $374,000, according to Koehler.

“For a rural district that is sparsely populated, we would not have the level of service we do without the volunteers. We staff two stations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

For the most recent volunteer training, the fire district received 32 applications for 11 positions.

“If they’re looking for a career path, we have an aggressive training program,” Koehler said. “If volunteers are community oriented, it’s a direct benefit to others.”

Volunteers can respond from home or have the option of scheduling a 12-hour shift at a station three times a month.

“It’s a great feeling to see an engine pull up with six people on it,” Koehler said. “It’s a huge benefit in any situation, whether it’s auto accident, medical call or fire.”

Mike Brown of Vancouver is a new ECFR volunteer who began in November.

“I’ve always been interested in emergency services,” he said. “I’m in the Oregon National Guard as an emergency medical technician, and I wanted to put that to use on the civilian side, so I thought I’d give this a try.”

Brown said the most exciting thing about being a volunteer is the camaraderie with others.

“You go out on different calls all the time and learn how to truly be a public servant.”

He said the most challenging aspect is getting in all of the training.

“I work a full-time job on the outside, but when you are a firefighter, your job is to keep people alive. It can be overwhelming.”

Paula Knapp has been a volunteer for 10 years.

“It always interested me because my brother was a volunteer who eventually went on to be a fire chief,” she said. “When my husband retired from the Navy, we were able to put down roots so I decided to volunteer.”

Her husband, Rick Knapp, is also a volunteer.

“The camaraderie here is great,” Paula Knapp said. “And the amount of knowledge I’ve gained and to be so involved with the fire district has been amazing.”

Jeff Walton, who owns Walton Farms just down the road from Station 91 in Fern Prairie, said the most rewarding part of being a volunteer firefighter is helping people.

“When they say ‘thank you’, it makes you feel great,” he said. “How many people can say they’ve saved someone’s life?”

Koehler said that to a person who receives emergency services or has their home saved, it doesn’t matter if the person responding is a volunteer or career firefighter.

“That’s not the question they ask,” he said. “And our volunteers are trained to a national standard of firefighter 1 status. We have in-house training that exceeds state requirements.”

Washougal Fire Department

The Washougal Fire Department was founded with volunteers more than 80 years ago, and the tradition continues today. Currently, there are 28 volunteers, six of whom were just sworn in, and 10 paid firefighters.

“Our volunteers have a real sense of community and they want to assist in any way they can,” Chief Ron Schumacher said. “This is a way for them to do that.”

Last year, Washougal volunteers put in approximately 4,000 hours for the fire department.

“And they did it at the cost of less than one paid firefighter,” Schumacher said.

Dustin Boss has been a volunteer firefighter for two years. He became interested in it after his future father-in-law, a captain with the department, encouraged him to get involved.

“I like being proud of what I do, and have people who look up to me and know I’ll be there to help them,” Boss said. “Also, the camaraderie and being part of a team is great. Anyone here is willing to do anything for the other volunteers.”

He said the most difficult aspect is going out on some of the calls.

“Some of the stuff you are going to see is pretty tough, but you’re there to help and do what you can.”

Tyler McMahon has been a volunteer firefighter for four years. He also serves as the president of the volunteer association.

“I decided to volunteer because my dad was a volunteer firefighter, my uncle retired out of the Portland fire department, and I wanted to give back to my community,” he said.

His favorite aspect of being a volunteer is helping people in need.

“We can apply our skills and work side-by-side with the medics to do what is needed,” McMahon said. “We are as qualified as the paid staff. This department was founded on volunteers and I like keeping it alive and successful.”

Larry Wagoner has been a Washougal volunteer for 18 years.

“I’ve always had an interest in the fire service,” he said. “It’s just really gratifying to help someone out at their worst moment and try to make it easier. This is definitely not for everybody. You have to be a special kind of person to put in the time commitment. We all have regular jobs, and this is extracurricular.”

Despite family and personal challenges, Wagoner has never given a thought to retiring.

“I’ve never considered this a burden,” he said. “My family and I have always just worked around it.”