Lovelock Fire Department battles volunteer shortage
Decline in volunteers puts LVFD in a critical state
Thursday, April 13, 2017 1:00 AM
After an investigation uncovered no misappropriation of funds at the Lovelock Volunteer Fire Department, Chief Nathan Carmichael responded by reading aloud a two-page memo at last week's county commission meeting. The letter warns of a critical volunteer shortage at the fire department.
The department is allowed up to 30 volunteers but the roster had declined from 22 volunteers about two months ago to 18 volunteers last week. The LVFD could be in jeopardy if the roster drops below the state's minimum required roster of 15 volunteers at the fire department according to Carmichael.
As for alleged misuse of the fire department credit card, District Attorney Bryce Shields said he found no evidence that the credit card had ever been used to buy alcohol. However, the availability of alcohol at the Lovelock fire house should be a cause for concern, Shields told county leaders.
Carmichael pointed out in his letter that volunteers save the county money by paying for their own events and other costs. Volunteers are paid a small stipend for each emergency response but those revenues are saved in a collective account for fire department activities and community donations.
“The members continue to use their own money to fund extracurricular activities for (the department's) past and present members, take care of past members and their families, to promote community activities, donate to different organizations and charities,” he states in his letter.
Carmichael said hundreds of hours of training are now required for new recruits to be certified as firefighters and emergency medical technicians and the difficult emergency situations they sometimes face at accidents and fires. As the roster declines, Carmichael said there are few reasons financially or otherwise to volunteer for the LVFD. Stepped up volunteer recruitment and incentives are needed otherwise the county could face the high costs of paid firefighting and ambulance services, he said.
“It's just hard to believe I can sit in front of the Commissioners and plead to you how we the Lovelock Volunteer Fire Department are in a critical state and yet we continue to be attacked by members of the community,” Carmichael says in his letter to commissioners. “There is little to no incentive to be a volunteer. We ask a new member to give hundreds of hours in the first year to become certified to run the ambulance and fire engine outside of their regular jobs. We ask seasoned members for hundreds of hours of continued education and training.”
Carmichael suggested that increased volunteer benefits could increase volunteer recruitment. For example, state benefit payments were only recently increased for Pershing County volunteers but remain substantially less than benefits received by volunteers in other counties.
“We have 18 active members of the Lovelock Volunteer Fire Department,” Carmichael said. “There are multiple members on the edge of quitting for many different reasons. Within our own Bylaws and Constitution, we cannot have a fire department with less than 15 members. Why aren't we asking the volunteer firefighters what they need and/or want or asking the members about things that will affect the fire departments?”
Carmichael said he's looking for help from county and city leaders to increase volunteer recruitment, with financial and other incentives, otherwise the LVFD could be in jeopardy. Some community leaders have suggested splitting the work so volunteers can choose between fighting fires and medical duties.
“Again, as the Chief I am asking for your help for recruitment and retention not reasons to dismantle the fire department,” he states in the letter. “If the Lovelock community doesn't step up, the Lovelock area of Pershing County will not have a fire department or ambulance service.”
In his letter, Carmichael defended the sharing of alcoholic beverages at the Lovelock fire house as one of the few benefits for volunteers. The fire house is about the only place where volunteers can share their experiences and recover from the sometimes heart-wrenching emergencies they must respond to.
“What you are asking be taken away helps us unwind after a critical call and helps the comradery within the fire department,” he said. “It is a benefit we afford ourselves that you don't pay for...After seeing and dealing with the things we are asked to deal with, we need a place and a way to burn off steam so we don't take it home to our families...Who do we get to talk to about the things we have seen or do?”
The department's Operating Guidelines prohibit volunteers from responding to emergencies, drills, parades or other events while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In the last 17 years, there has been only one incident involving a volunteer firefighter and alcohol according to Carmichael.
“We are not doing anything different than other volunteer fire departments around the state, the Army National Guard, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Local Legion, etc. There are other functions that participate in the similar behavior using county and city buildings and parks,” Carmichael states. “We are left asking ourselves why we are being heavily scrutinized.”
When asked for his input on the alcohol issue, Shields told county leaders that while counties, cities, and firefighters are generally shielded from liability for negligent acts or omissions, this protection is lost if a firefighter’s conduct affirmatively causes the harm.
“By allowing the consumption of alcohol, you introduce an element of risk –the possibility of a catastrophic event- that would come back to the county and its firefighters,” Shields said. “In today’s extremely litigious society, what once may have been an accepted practice may no longer be permitted.”
At the next commission meeting, Carmichael will present updated LVFD Operating Guidelines as commissioners consider the alcohol policy, volunteer recruitment and other issues. Some community members have suggested that recruitment might increase, not decrease, if the Lovelock fire house is “dry” with no alcohol as is the case at the Grass Valley and Rye Patch Volunteer Fire Departments.
More training and a new cost recovery system are being implemented at the department according to Carmichael. In addition, the LVFD generated an overall vote of confidence in last year's survey of local residents conducted by the University of Nevada School of Medicine.
“We did a survey in the community also and the response we got from the community should be noted. We did not hand pick the participants nor did we even ask who they were,” Carmichael states in his letter. “We did ask the participants if they were willing and/or able to volunteer and most could not if they even wanted to. We do not have people knocking down our doors to be members.”
The survey was conducted free of charge at the request of the LVFD with 179 questionnaires returned by local residents- 83.5 percent of the respondents reside in Lovelock, 14.2 percent in the Lovelock Valley area and 2.3 percent reside elsewhere.
Residents were asked to choose their expected response times for the LVFD to arrive on scene in an emergency. The majority of 43.6 percent selected a response time of 10 minutes, 23.3 percent expect a 15 minute response time while 18.6 percent of the respondents expect a five minute response time.
Residents were asked to rate, on a scale of one to five, their confidence in the Lovelock fire department's ability to respond to a house fire, a brush fire, a medical need and a traumatic injury. Nearly half or 49.4 percent of respondents rated their confidence at five for house fires. For brush fires, 42.5 percent selected the highest confidence rating. For medical calls, 48.3 percent gave the department the highest rating of five and 46 percent did the same for traumatic injury calls.
Residents were asked if separate fire and ambulance departments would be better or worse for the community or if the LVFD should remain unchanged. 30.7 percent of the respondents said they had insufficient information for an opinion on the issue. Other residents were split with 22.2 percent who said separate departments would not benefit the community, 21.6 who believe it would and 18.2 who think the unified volunteer department is best for the community.
Residents also were asked if they would be willing to volunteer for any of the following: the LVFD, a fire department, an ambulance department or “None of the above.” Of the respondents, 82.2 percent selected “None of the above” meaning they would not be willing to serve as either volunteer firefighters or emergency medical technicians.
The end of the questionnaire asked for any written comments on the LVFD. There were “words of appreciation” (66.7 percent), “need training in professionalism” (17.3 percent), “need stronger leadership” (4.9 percent) and “It's a club more than a fire department” (3.7 percent).