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Solidarity Eases Burden Of Volunteer Firefighting

Paonia Fire Department
Laura Palmisano

There are 198 all-volunteer fire departments in Colorado that serve about half of the state’s population. And a recent report finds many of these operations are seriously understaffed.

A Trip To Two Delta County Volunteer Fire Depts. 

Matthew Van Vleet has been volunteering with the Paonia Fire Department for seven years.

When he’s not at the fire station, or at his paying job, he also volunteers as an emergency responder for the local ambulance association.  

"It’s hard to balance it," he says. "I have about 15-hour shifts at the coal mine. And I only work 14 days out of the month so the other 14 days I’m trying to balance it with honey-dos and kids. I have four kids. And it takes a very giving wife to allow so much time."

Van Vleet’s older brother also volunteers for Paonia Fire. The department has 26 firefighters, but it’s still short two crew members.

Thirty miles away in Cedaredge it’s the same story.

Cedaredge Fire Chief Kevin Walker says it’s been hard to recruit young people in recent years. And, the area’s struggling economy means people are having to spend more time trying to make ends meet. 

"Commitment is huge," Walker says. "Everybody has a fulltime job. They are trying to make a life somewhere else, make their living, take care of their family...and that comes to a screeching halt every time the pager goes off." 

He says it takes a lot more time to volunteer than most people realize.

“Most people don’t see what really goes on in the fire department," Walker says. "They see the trucks drive down the road. They don’t see that an hour fire takes three hours to clean up when you get back to restock the trucks, to put them back together, [and] all the work that goes in behind the scenes."

Paonia and Cedaredge are not alone.

Nationwide volunteer fire departments are facing shortages.

And according to data compiled by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News Colorado needs an additional 3,500 volunteer firefighters. That means the state only has about half of the volunteers it needs.

The Cedaredge Fire crew says they give their time because they want to help others. And, they love being part of the firefighting community.

“There’s five of us that are family that are on the fire department," Don Leon says. “Robin and Wayne are my in-laws, my sister in-law and my brother-in-law. And Eli is my brother and Brian is my son-in-law."

Leon has been a volunteer for the Cedaredge Fire Department for 22 years.

Robin Melson is Leon’s sister-in-law.

In addition to Melson and her husband, her father also used to volunteer for the department.

Melson says she was raised in this community.

"It’s a family," she says. "I mean you’re all a family. And y'all cry together. Y'all laugh together. It’s a family that’s not like any other family and there’s a certain amount of closeness. If one thing affects you it affects y'all." 

Cedaredge Fire Chief Kevin Walker says there may be shortages from one department to another, but all of them work together.

"We’re all a big family whether you’re from Cedaredge, Paonia, Hotchkiss, [or] Delta," he says. "We work together on calls, off calls. That’s the fire service nationwide."

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