More than two decades ago, when Stephen Trujillo made his first run as a volunteer firefighter for the Del Norte Fire Department, there was a waiting list for those wanting to join. Now, "when guys retire there is nobody to replace them. We don't have people coming through the door to be volunteers, and that is nationwide," said Trujillo, president of the Colorado State Fire Fighters Association.

Fire departments that rely on volunteers in Colorado and across the nation are struggling to attract and keep personnel, said Garry Briese, executive director of Colorado State Fire Chiefs.

The shortage has been a problem for 30 years, Briese said.

But challenges have escalated as demands on potential volunteers' time have increased, costs for training have climbed, and businesses have become reluctant to allow employees to leave work for fire service, said Ken Willette of the National Fire Protection Association.

Years ago, single-income families were the rule. One parent, usually the wife, stayed home and cared for children, allowing the other to run to an emergency at a moment's notice, Willette said.

Both members of a couple generally work today, and they may be caring for children and their own parents as well.

People also place a higher premium on recreation, education and other activities and are unwilling to give those up, Willette said.


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"Overall, people's personal time today is so tightly scheduled, they don't have the time," Willette said.

While the mills and factories of industrial America often were willing to give workers time to leave the job to help with an emergency, today's businesses, many of them based far from the local community, are less willing to do so, Willette said.

Although Colorado doesn't require special training for firefighters, most departments in the state do at least some training.

But especially in rural departments, it isn't always enough.

"There is an urban-rural divide. The departments that are generally more rural than urban have generally less training requirements," Briese said. "Training on a statewide basis is generally inadequate to provide a safe environment for volunteers."

Someone who wants to volunteer at the Jackson 105 Fire Department in Sedalia, which conforms to national voluntary training standards, must learn basic firefighting, hazardous material handling and emergency medical skills.

Personnel can spend more than 50 hours training in the first year, and in most cases they have to do it while working a full-time job, said Jarrod Lamb, Jackson 105 fire chief. Jackson 105 doesn't allow volunteers to respond to emergencies until they have completed their initial firefighting training.

In succeeding years, they have to take 36 hours of continuing education each year.

Some departments provide training locally, but often volunteers must travel to learn, Trujillo said. "If you want top-notch training, you're going to have to leave and go up to different training facilities. Some of the departments will pay for the class, and then volunteers have to pay for their room and board."

The Rock Creek Volunteer Fire Department, in Eagle County, which handles only 40 calls a year, provides some training, said Chief Brita Horn. But it isn't as comprehensive as that offered at larger departments.

While departments generally issue turn-out gear and other essential firefighting equipment, volunteers have to dig into their own bank accounts for flashlights and other equipment, Trujillo said.

Departments in the state that depend entirely on volunteers are never fully staffed, Trujillo said. At Del Norte, where 34 volunteers make a full complement, 26 are presently on staff, he said.

"Colorado needs to recruit approximately 3,500 additional volunteer emergency responders to be fully protected," according to the CSFFA website.

To make up for the lack of volunteers, departments like the Jackson 105, a few miles west of Castle Rock, have hired part-time paid staffers and use them during the hours it is hardest to get volunteers.

Jackson was "purely volunteer until about six years ago," Lamb said. "When volunteers were at work, we didn't have anybody to respond."

While most departments are part of special taxing districts that can, with voter approval, levy or increase a tax, 50 nongovernmental volunteer fire departments have no taxing authority and are the most dependent on contributions from communities and state and federal grants, Briese said. "They're the ones that do the bake sales and chili suppers."

Fundraising events can take significant time to arrange and hold, said Lamb, whose department holds a community garage sale to raise money.

For many smaller departments, fundraising can consume a lot of time. "Usually a couple of volunteers take that on," Lamb said.

Horn, the chief of the Rock Creek Fire Department in McCoy, said her department receives donations of firetrucks from other, larger departments that are replacing them with new vehicles.

She sells the trucks to local ranchers who want to protect their property and don't have access to regular fire hydrants. She teaches them to get water from dry hydrants that suck water from ponds.

"You tell me, is there any man you know that doesn't want to own their own firetruck?" she quips.

More money comes from grants and fundraisers, she said.

Horn said she is always looking for volunteers.

"They're mostly kids who are really energetic and really want to do it, but they are all looking for a paying job and go on to something else," Horn said.

Colorado will give those who pledge to volunteer two years reimbursement for college tuition of up to $5,000.

For every year that a volunteer receives tuition reimbursement, he or she must commit to membership at a volunteer fire department for two years.

If the volunteer has college-age kids, they can use the money for their education while the parent does the work. "That has helped out a lot," Horn said.

Janice Michael, a software developer who retired two years ago, has volunteered at Jackson 105 for the past four years. "It was pretty time-consuming while I was still working."

It was worth it, the 62- year-old added. "I think it is probably the most rewarding thing I did in my life. You are taking somebody's worst day and trying to make it better."

Tom McGhee: 303-954-1671, tmcghee@denverpost.com or twitter.com/dpmcghee