Fri, Oct. 18

Recruitment a constant job for firefighters in Jerome

From left, Jerome Fire Chief Rusty Blair, Assistant Chief Tim Irwin, who is a volunteer, and full-time Jerome firefighter Ian Haney. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

From left, Jerome Fire Chief Rusty Blair, Assistant Chief Tim Irwin, who is a volunteer, and full-time Jerome firefighter Ian Haney. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

Being short-handed is a way of life at the Jerome Fire Department.

It’s been an issue for years, explained Jerome Fire Chief Rusty Blair.

Blair runs a 24-hour, seven-day-week fire and EMT department with himself, two 40-hour-per week staff firefighters and about 20 volunteers.

Right now, one of the staff positions has not been filled for several months, so it’s Blair and full-time firefighter Ian Haney carrying the load.

Only about six or seven of the volunteers out of the 20 volunteers are serious about showing up on a regular basis to medical and fire calls, explained Blair.

“We’ve gotten lucky throughout the years,” Blair said.

But Jerome is unique because of its terrain and other factors. Blair said responding to a medical call can require up to six people because of the high stairs they have to carry patients down, or tight hills and roads they have to maneuver four-wheel-drive trucks on.

The problem is that Jerome only has a population of about 450 for Blair to draw volunteers from. People who work in Jerome are also qualified to join as volunteers in the fire department.

Volunteers are put through a fire academy training program by the town. Some are trained as firefighters, and some in EMT, and some in both.

He said most of his volunteers live in town, but the increase in vacation homes and rentals has further decreased the number of people available to volunteer.

The high cost of housing has made it more difficult for people to move to Jerome or build houses, he added.

While at the same time, fire department calls have increased each year, the chief said.

“Our call-volume went up to 618 last year,” Blair said. “Last year we had 40 snake calls.

“It’s the same all over the place now. It’s harder and harder to get volunteers.”

Blair said he has a paid, full-time firefighter/EMT staff position open right now, but has not had luck filling it.

He is trying to advertise the position within his volunteer pool first before opening it up.

Blair is on-call 24-hours-a-day and wears a pager while his two staff firemen work 40 hours per week at the 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week department, so volunteers are crucial, he said

The chief, who lives in Jerome, said he has to make sure the other firefighter is on duty whenever he leaves Jerome to go to the store to make sure there is coverage.

“We never know what is going to happen,” Blair said. “We need resources” even with mutual aid, which means a truck and a couple guys.

“With our topography, everything is more labor intensive here,” said head of the department that routinely practices rappelling off cliffs with Jerome police to prepare for rescues in places such as Perkinsville Road and Mingus Mountain.

A complicated rescue or fire can take a dozen people, or a simple EMS call with all the steps in Jerome  takes five or six people just to get them down to the ambulance.

“Most of the members live up here,” Blair said, even though a few do just work in town.

“My homeowners are the ones that are more active.”

Blair said one answer is to cross-train town employees and even possibly have Jerome firemen and police officers trained to contribute to each other’s roles.

The town has offered police officers a stipend if they get their EMT certification, Blair said. They have put the same offer to Public Works employees.

Blair said it would be “ideal” way to facilitate the “budget” if someday the policemen and firemen were the same person. But it would take cross-training, he said.

“Realistically,” Blair said, the town is going to have do something before he leaves as chief because he said it will hard to find someone else who will be want to be on-duty seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day.

In the meantime, Blair tries to fill his full-time position from his pool of volunteers.

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