Our Small-Town Volunteer Fire Department
October 11, 2023
The Chinook volunteer fire department started in 1904 and is still going strong! They cover roughly 2,056 areas from the Canadian border, to Zurich, the Hill County line, and all the way to the Missouri river. They currently have 15 active members and 2 reserve members on the crew. The number for a full company is 28. The gap in those numbers may not seem that big but when majority of your crew work out of town during the week or when they have kids and can't find a sitter right away that makes those numbers drop even more. So many of the crew are business owners, fathers, mothers, have full time jobs, and just can't make it to every call. When I heard how low their numbers where I jumped at the thought of what can our community do to help raise awareness on everything they do and the need for more help. Many of our volunteers have been helping the community for 20+ years. Like our Chief of the Fire Department Scott Gallus who has been with the department for over 30 years! Their commitment and sacrifice for the community hasn't gone unnoticed. Looking at the statistics for age profile based on community size how many people 50+ and under 30 are now volunteers is saddening. In 1987 50+ only had 15.9 % in volunteers and 30 and under was 29.7% now in a more recent study in 2020 the numbers have switched with 50+ being at 34% and under 30 at 22% for volunteers. It is wonderful that we have people stay for so many years, but there should also be more younger people stepping up as well.
The amount of time and energy these volunteers put in is amazing. They don't always have the luxury to finish their meal or game with family before the pager goes off for a call. Take Chief of Police Elmer Zarn, who started volunteering in Dec. of 1987. Not only was he a city police officer, but he also worked for the fire department and the ambulance. The number of calls and time away from home became too much with three young boys and his wife said it was time to make a choice. Elmer quit the ambulance but still was away from home quite a bit. So, in July of 1995 with their kids a bit more grown his wife Karla decide she was going to join the fire department as well. Sadly, when she joined the crew lost their "lunch box." (As Elmer lovingly likes to call her) Although she still makes many meals for the crew when she isn't working or on call. The last big fire we had, after work Karla went the fire hall and made 60+ sack lunches! The gentlemen I talked to say the community and churches have been amazing as well at providing food and water during times of need. They have also been amazing at helping on rural fires. The only thing that the fire department asks is if you are helping on a rural fire, please check in with a Fire Fighter that way they know how many bodies are out with them and where you are.
Family time is everything and they are all family
Yes, there is calls away, but there are also days they get to bring the kids to the fire hall with them and they can play in the sandbox or run around the trucks. Sure, they are young and may get bored fast, but those extra moments having them around and hearing their laugher fill the hall make it all worthwhile. The volunteers that don't have kids or theirs are all grown up especially love when they bring the kids in to play it really helps lighten the atmosphere.The firefighters all try and have as much family time and family get togethers as they can whether it's a Christmas dinner in the early spring or just bringing family in for a big Pancake feast.
One way the community can help
Some families don't have that extra person to call in the night to come watch their kids when they only have 5 minutes at times to be at the fire hall. Another system they would like to use is a pager system for a babysitter. A lot of those late-night calls for single parents makes it even harder for volunteers to be at the station. If there is someone that can keep a pager at home, then come to the station and watch kids' when volunteers get a call that could help tremendously with allowing more people to show up and maybe even more people to join.
Requirements to become a Volunteer Fire Fighter
The need for volunteers is critical. If we have more members, then we can have "more people show up less, than less people showing up more." If you are interested in volunteering, you can ask any of the volunteer fire fighters. There is a multi-step process to become a member. You must first become accepted to the department. After that there is a 6-month probation period where you must complete your task book and have it signed off by a crew member and an officer. Your task book is compiled with skills you need to know about the job and different things you will do at an accident or fire. You also need to feel confident in what you are doing and sign off as well. If you complete everything, then there will be a vote if you get to be a permanent member. Captain Jason Metcalf had this to say, "The probation really isn't as long as it seems. You can be at every call and every training or just be at what you can. This is volunteer work not a full-time job, you make it what you want." To stay a volunteer, you must meet 30 hours of training a year and 45 hours for officers. Of the 30 hours 20 must be department training. That way you can learn to work the machines and equipment in your department. Which after talking to some of the crew it's not hard to meet your hours. Most people average 60-80 hours a year. Everyone is trained on all the trucks and equipment that way no matter who is available for a call everyone can work everything. Though there are some people that defiantly know some equipment better than others.
Covering such a large rural area makes our fire department much different than others, allowing Chinook Fire Department to be licensed as a Basic Life Support Non-Transport Unit. All the trucks have basic lifesaving essentials and 4 of the members are cross trained! (Soon to be 5) All the members are also CRP and AED certified. There are 4 different trucks that they use depending on what kind of a call comes in whether it's a Brush fire or a car accident. First is the Fire Engine Truck, that is comprised of fire extinguishers, fire hoses, ladders, and floodlights. Next is the Crash rescue truck, which is one of the most common on scene. It is a technical vehicle with extrication tools such as the jaws of life, air compression tools, AED, and many more. They also have a Brush truck which is used for wild land fires. It has four-wheel drive and allows them to get to more rural areas. Brush trucks don't have to stop to pump water whereas a fire engine would. Finally, is the tender, they are not the sole vehicle that responds to a call solely because their job is just to hold water. Many firefighters will rely on tenders when they don't have access to a hydrant, or one isn't working. They also have a tactical tender and command vehicle as well.
The last two years motor vehicle and gas smells/leaks have been the main calls, but they also get calls for wildfires. Thankfully we haven't had a fire like Elmer and the other volunteers in October of 1991. That fire started in October and was still burning hot coals in January. The fire went from the hill County line to the Fort Belknap line. Chinook Fire department was on scene for a week and a half straight then as needed and when farmers called about hot coals. Elmer recalled them using a backhoe to move the snow to get to the burning coals, he even jumped in almost to his neck up to snow.
They have helped Hill County, Phillips County, Malta, Chester, Glasgow, Denton, Miles City, and so many more throughout Montana. Montana may be a big state, but we help our neighbors. Chinook Fire Department also works amazing with other departments whether it's Chinook emergency or someone else in the neighboring counties. Chinook Fire Department is also registered in Montana Mutual Aid and can be called anywhere in Montana for help. If they get the call and they can help they are going!
Help our small town and help our volunteers by becoming a volunteer today! Here is to you and another 100 years Chinook Fire Department!