The community needs Bethel Fire Department, and they need us
The Bethel Fire Department had a challenging summer. There were four major fires, and they only have four firefighters, the fire chief, and an administrative assistant right now. They’re asking for more volunteers, noting that being a firefighter is rewarding, exciting, and a critical service to the community.
When I spoke to Bethel Fire Chief Daron Solesbee, he had a sticky note tacked on his desk reminding him to sleep more. He said that any department that has low staffing understands that the workload becomes quite heavy because all the jobs still need to get done.
“It's just more workload, people experience more burnout. Okay, I'm not an exception to that. You know, this is a stressful job to begin with. But when we don't have enough people, you know, makes it tougher. But like I said, we're all, we've all dug in our heels, and we're going to continue to serve as much as we can,” Solesbee said.
This fall, Bethel Fire Department planned a Firefighter 1 course to certify participants with the minimum qualifications needed to operate safely and efficiently inside a burning structure. It would have been free here in Bethel, compared to high costs at other fire academies, but then they had to cancel the course after participants dropped out. One of the department’s would-be instructors has also been out temporarily due to a serious car accident.
“The State of Alaska requires that we have a minimum of five in the course in order for them to send out a certifying officer for testing. So we opted to cancel the course and focus on other things, and to do on-the-job training with our two staff members that are still needing that certification.”
The department is planning an EMT class soon, and is looking forward to constructing a new firefighter training tower in the first week of October. When their new fire engine arrives on the barge, the firefighters are going to welcome it with a washdown, a tradition dating back to the 1880s when horses pulled the equipment. And they’re going to have another car seat check event to make sure local car seats meet safety requirements. They’ve been working on recruiting through different fire academies, career fairs, and online sites hoping to find new recruits.
“So we’re really trying to buckle down on recruiting. But right now it's pretty bad with staffing. We're trying to get people in, but unfortunately this is something that is not unique to our department. It's happening all around all the different fire departments,” Solesbee said.
Across the country, fire departments are struggling to find firefighters and volunteers, who make up two-thirds of firefighters nationwide. The drop off has been steeper since the pandemic. At the same time, while fewer fires have been reported, fire deaths have been increasing over the last decade as modern materials are more flammable. Fire departments across the nation are reporting high levels of exhaustion, physically and mentally.
Solesbee said that the positive experiences that come with the job have made for a rewarding career.
“For me, that is one of my biggest motivating factors to doing this,” said Solesbee. “I've been on the job for 20 years. And I can tell you, by far, it's probably the best decision I've ever made professionally. You know, just because anytime you get to help someone, you get to see how they experienced something bad, but you can make it that much better.”
Still, without more staff it’s hard for the fire department to meet their own needs and the needs of the community.
“Right now we need help,” said Solesbee. “So if anybody can find it within themselves in the community to help us out, we will provide the training. And, you know, we need to help this community. And without people we can't do that.”
Solesbee explained that there is no one set of strengths or backgrounds that make for a good firefighter or volunteer. Those interested can fill out a volunteer application form on their website, cityofbethel.org/fire, and the department will be in touch.