In Pershing County, volunteer firefighters must train for both fires and medical emergencies.
In Pershing County, volunteer firefighters must train for both fires and medical emergencies.
Pershing County emergency services leaders sounded the alarm last week due to a decline in volunteers responding to emergency calls. A few of the older volunteers, retired from daytime jobs, respond to most of the daytime calls according to Lovelock Fire Chief Rodney Wilox.

Many of the Lovelock Volunteer Fire Department’s younger members have out-of-town jobs, or even in-town jobs, that make it difficult for them to respond as needed to medical and fire emergencies, Wilcox said. This has become a problem across the county at the three other volunteer fire and

ambulance departments in Rye Patch, Imlay and Grass Valley where many of those volunteers also work out of town for the mines, hospitals, the county or other employers.

As a result, about four of the LVFD’s twenty-one members are responding to many of the daytime fire and ambulance calls in Lovelock and beyond, Wilcox told county commissioners. The volunteers are dedicated but they cannot be expected to carry the load forever, he said.

“We’re still doing the job, we’re getting it done but people are getting burned out,” Wilcox told county leaders at last week’s workshop. “We want to look at an alternative to doing something with the ambulance service. In the old days, the town had a lot of businesses. The people that owned the businesses belonged to the fire department and the ambulance service. They had employees and it was no big problem for them to get away. Now we have people at the mines, at the hospital that can’t just get away anytime they want...What can we do to change this?” 

All of Pershing County’s emergency volunteers must be trained and certified as both an Emergency Medical Technician and a Firefighter One meaning hours of online and classroom training. The county may be one of the last along the I-80 corridor that requires emergency volunteers to be certified as both firefighters and EMTs, the emergency leaders told county officials. Wilcox brought a stack of textbooks to show the ever-increasing training requirements.

“If we get a new fireman, they have to learn all this and the state gives them tests on all of this,” he explained. “You add that on top of somebody who does a lot of calls, we’re burning people out. The younger generation- we can get them for three or four years. Patty (Wilcox) has been there three years and she’s already going, my God, we can’t go anywhere. We could get up and go but we feel the responsibility just like everyone else- that we owe it to the community or we would be letting them down.”

Long-time LVFD volunteer Mike Heidemann pointed out that more people might volunteer as firefighters, or return to the department, if they were not required to be certified EMT’s as well.

County leaders asked the emergency service leaders to investigate a possible contract with an ambulance service such as Humboldt General Hospital in Winnemucca, REMSA in Reno or Banner Hospital in Fallon. Such a contract could lead to paid EMS positions for local volunteers.

“They might even want to hire somebody from here to do that job,” Wilcox responded.

As for fire services, county leaders suggested an independent, county-wide fire protection district to include the existing fire departments and the ability to tax residents for fire services. 

“If it was set up as a district that could have its own taxing authority, it would have to have an elected body,” Commissioner Rob McDougal said. “I was trying to figure out a way that either four fire departments or four fire departments and an ambulance department were somewhat equal and autonomous but still under the umbrella of the district...It would have to have its own taxing authority because we couldn’t support it out of the county costs.”

Wilcox and other officials said the volunteer shortage puts fire and accident victims at risk as well as the volunteers who do respond and that creates potential liability issues for the county. Each fire engine should be adequately manned with backup on scene according to the state.

“We went on a call not too long ago where we had a big brush fire and they had three engines out there with three people,” Wilcox said. “Imlay and Rye Patch are in the same boat.”

Emergency officials said, so far, there have been no emergencies that volunteers have not responded to but the staffing for some calls has not been adequate. At one point, there was a vehicle fire on I-80 leaving only one volunteer EMT available to assist a stroke victim. A “good samaritan” ambulance driver had to be recruited so the volunteer could attend to the victim.

Heidemann confirmed that communities can no longer depend on volunteer first responders.

“You are required to be on-call 24/7 for seven days,” he said. “I work out of town. Is that fair to me to have to listen to this because I didn’t answer a call? Is it fair to you for me to be on-call and expect me not to be there? What we have done since 1925 when it was set up has been fantastic but it’s time to rethink the way business is being done all over the state.”