COLUMBIA FALLS — When Karl Weeks first started volunteering with the Columbia Falls Fire Department 23 years ago, he was called to duty every few days for car accidents, suspicious smoke, or the occasional building fire.
Now the calls for help are coming in every day.
As Montana’s population continues to grow, fire departments in communities large and small are asked to do more each year. But the surge in calls is particularly hard on smaller, volunteer departments. As a result, more cities are hiring full-time workers, including Columbia Falls, which hired its first three paid firefighters in December. Jade Thomas, Ryan Smith and Brad Peterson all started a few days after Christmas, joining Weeks, who has been a full-time fire chief since 2020.
When Weeks began volunteering in 2000, the department was answering about 170 calls each year. But in the last two decades that has increased, especially in the last two years. In 2020, the Columbia Fall Fire Department responded to 305 calls; in 2022, it responded to 357 calls (Fire departments do not make medical calls unless local emergency services, Three Rivers EMS, are unavailable.) That’s a 17% increase.
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Weeks said the department has been fortunate in that it generally has a strong pool of volunteers, with 25 currently on its roster. However, volunteer firefighters are not always available.
“We have a really great group of volunteers,” Weeks said. “But it was difficult to respond to calls when people work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday.”
Weeks said it was easier to put together a full crew years ago when many volunteers were shift workers at places like Plum Creek Timber Company or Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, both of which had managers who let employees go when a call for help came in than A few years ago city officials noticed that the department was having trouble responding to calls during the weekdays, so the city council began planning to hire full-time staff to fill the gaps. Two of the new positions will be paid for by the Columbia Falls occupancy tax and the third by the Columbia Falls Rural Fire District (the city has had a full-time fire chief since the early 2000s).
While Columbia Falls still has a strong core of volunteers, other small towns aren’t so lucky.
Travis Walker is the Captain of the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department and President of the Montana State Volunteer Fire Department. Not only is the number of calls in his community increasing (from 150-175 annually when he started 17 years ago to 250-275 annually in recent years), but the number of volunteers is also declining.
“Recruitment and retention is really, really difficult,” Walker said. “I mean, you’re asking these people to give up a lot.”
Volunteer firefighters not only have to be called to work around the clock, they also have to complete many hours of training. Walker said many people just don’t have that much time left to get involved in their community. A benefit for volunteers in many departments is that they can receive a retirement stipend of about $300 a month after 20 years of service.
Rich Cowger is the fire chief in Columbus, west of Billings, and chairman of the Montana State Fire Chiefs’ Association. He said what’s happening in Columbia Falls and Hamilton isn’t unique to those communities, and that departments across the state are dealing with the same predicament.
Montana has about 400 fire departments. About a dozen in the state’s larger cities are staffed by full-time firefighters, another two dozen are a mix of paid staff and volunteers, and the rest are all volunteers. According to Cowger, one challenge of the hybrid model is ensuring that when a department begins hiring full-time employees, volunteers still feel needed and wanted. He also said even departments offering full-time positions are struggling to fill those positions in a tight job market.
“I wish there was a magic bullet to solve all this,” he said.
Back in Columbia Falls, Weeks said the first few weeks of the hybrid model worked well. Many projects around the train station that have been ignored for years are getting done.
Peterson, 55, worked for FH Stoltze Land & Lumber before being hired by the Columbia Falls department, where he was a volunteer firefighter for more than 25 years. Like many volunteer firefighters, he signed up because he loved the craft and wanted to serve his community. Being able to do the job full-time was a dream come true.
“I’ve wanted to do this my whole life,” he said.
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