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It's a romantic image, that of ranchers leaving their fields and livestock or barbers, storekeepers and blacksmiths closing up shop to rush to the aid of a neighbor whose life or property is imperiled by fire.

Since Benjamin Franklin founded Philadelphia's Union Fire Company in 1736, volunteers have formed the backbone of U.S. firefighting forces and remain a critical part of Sonoma County's emergency response network, especially in rural communities.

But staffing the ranks of volunteers has grown increasingly daunting in an age of shifting demographics, long-distance commutes, ever-busier lives and training mandates that require the same instruction for volunteers that most paid firefighters get.

"There's just a significant need for volunteers nationwide, California-wide, Sonoma County-wide, Napa County-wide," said former Sonoma County Fire Chief Vern Losh. "I think it boils down to changing economics. People don't work where they necessarily live anymore. People can't just leave their jobs to go run to a fire or a medical aid."

The Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department has determined that 300 active volunteers would be necessary to ensure its 15 rural, all-volunteer departments provide the desired level of safety and service recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, county Fire Chief Mark Aston said.

One in five of those positions is unfilled. Rural and remote coastal communities distant from population centers are in the poorest shape, officials said.

Several hundred more volunteers fill out the ranks of 24 other city departments and community fire protection districts, many of which have turned to small paid staffs in the past decade or two to guarantee someone is on duty during weekday hours when most would-be volunteers are at work.

Most of those departments also have shorter volunteer rosters, officials said.

In the case of a medical emergency, when only a couple of folks need to respond, it's not a real problem, said Sean Grinnell, chief at Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, which has developed an internship program to help fill 24-hour volunteer shifts.

"Where we start running into trouble is if we have a cliff rescue, a vehicle accident, structure fire or wildland fire," he said. "Those are the types of things that you need bodies."

Most local departments have at least a small core of volunteers — a mix of old-timers and younger people for whom volunteer service may be a stepping stone to a paid firefighting career.

Countywide mutual aid agreements also guarantee backup response from neighboring departments, so someone always will come in an emergency, officials said.

But staffing at many departments is thin, especially in remote communities that serve primarily as bedroom communities or where ranches that once supported multiple generations no longer do.

In the meantime, safety mandates mean most volunteers must spend significant time getting their initial training — just like paid firefighters — before they're allowed on an engine. In addition, because of lower call volumes in rural departments, volunteers are required to attend weekly or bi-weekly training to remain proficient in addition to some weekend sessions.

The time requirements eliminate many potential volunteers.

In addition, "fire service" has expanded well beyond fire calls to include vehicle crashes, rescues, medical emergencies, hazardous conditions and all manner of catastrophes, meaning higher call volumes and more diverse training needs, they said. It's also become highly technical, Aston said.

"It is very risky. It is very physically taxing. It is emotionally taxing," he said, "and it takes a tremendous amount of time away from their social lives and their families."

"When I started up, they just handed you pagers and you started going to calls," said Bloomfield Fire Chief Jeff Matthews, 57, a department volunteer for two decades. "Now you need 140, 150 hours of classroom time before you get turnouts," the classic yellow gear most firefighters wear.

So fire officials increasingly are looking for creative ways to beef up their pool of volunteers, including paying, for example, modest stipends for training sessions, callouts or overnight "sleeper" shifts.

Twelve of the 15 volunteer firefighters at the tiny Valley Ford Fire District are out-of-town reserve, apprentice or aspiring career firefighters who commit to 12-hour shifts and training sessions in exchange for on-the-job skill development, Chief Nick Neisius said.

In Sebastopol, Fire Chief Bill Braga, a volunteer himself, has struck a deal with the city Department of Public Works, which permits two of its people to respond to most daytime emergency calls as volunteers.

The Cloverdale Fire Department aggressively recruits high school students for its Explorer Academy, which provides exposure to firefighting, Chief Jason Jenkins said. About a quarter of those Explorers go on to volunteer when old enough, he said.

But Cloverdale also has begun paying volunteers $10 to $15 a call, depending on rank, to respond to emergency calls and $20 to attend weekly drill nights — just a little something to encourage participation, Jenkins said.

"People don't have the time to commit like they used to," he said, "and so we have to adapt and change over the years and offer different program and think out of the box to keep qualified individuals with the organization."

The federal Department of Homeland Security has stepped in as well, with a nationwide grant program aimed at recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters through tuition reimbursement grants and other programs that provide some nominal reward to volunteers.

One of these Homeland Security grants was obtained by Napa County last year and recently extended to Sonoma County and other neighboring counties.

Applicants can earn $5,000 a year, or up to $10,000, toward any college curriculum they desire — not just fire science — in exchange for 2? years of volunteer fire service per $5,000 grant.

The money also can be used for tuition for an immediate family member or even to pay down school loans, grant administrator Megan Bryant said.

"We want the general public to realize there is a need for volunteers, and now there is an incentive to do it, as well," Bryant said. "Especially people that come from an urban area: They don't even realize how much this whole country is dependent on firefighters."

Former Sonoma County Chief Losh, who has signed on to promote the tuition reimbursement grant, said it's been well received, although awareness is still building.

Sonoma County recently obtained a separate, smaller grant of $273,250 to help fund localized training sessions, aimed at reducing volunteer travel needs, and a modest incentive program rewarding longevity and participation, Aston said.

"The crux of the matter is to reward these folks for the significant commitment they make," Aston said. "And it's really important for people to understand that a volunteer firefighter is required to have the same training as a career firefighter."

But there also is reward in answering the call — in greeting a neighbor who once needed help and connecting with one's community in an intimate way, said Ken Ronhausen, a rancher and Web marketer who volunteers in Two Rock. "The payoff is you get 10 times back what you put in," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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