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Pouring Cold Water on Firefighters' Zeal

Service: Orange County says volunteer program is outdated and needs retooling. Participants fear their duties will be greatly reduced.

July 06, 2001|JASON SONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Bret Young, being a firefighter is an obsession, a hobby and a cloud over his head.

An obsession because he has given up holidays, birthdays and days off to fight fires or give first aid to accident victims.

A hobby because Young, 36, is a volunteer reserve firefighter with the Orange County Fire Authority. Instead of working regular shifts, he carries a pager and responds to as many calls as he can, even though he earns only $5 for each one. Young estimates that he works at least 10 hours a week.

And a cloud because he isn't sure what will happen to volunteer firefighters, who have served the county almost a century but are now deemed by some to be out of sync with the demands of fighting fires in the modern world.

The program has been under scrutiny by a special board appointed by the Fire Authority to make recommendations on how to redeploy the volunteers. In the meantime, the authority has placed a moratorium on the training program that supplies new volunteers. Although officials say the number of volunteers always fluctuates, there are now only 393 reserves for 765 positions.

Fire officials and volunteers say the ranks are thinning for a variety of reasons, including retirement, job opportunities at other fire departments, low pay and doubt about the future of the program.

There are only 20 volunteers in Young's company, based at Station 23 in Villa Park. Several years ago, there were 30.

All of which leaves Young worried about the special board's recommendation, which is expected in a matter of weeks.

"I'm hopeful that things will go back to the way they were . . . but I'm not exactly holding my breath," he said. "Something's going to change."

Fire authority officials agree.

"Our volunteer force structure will continue to play an important part in our department . . . but it will have to be retooled to make it reflective of today's needs," said Battalion Chief Scott Brown.

Brown cited the changing nature of Orange County as a key factor in the volunteer program's decline. Over the last 20 years, the population served by the Fire Authority has jumped more than 130%, to its current 1.3 million.

While volunteer firefighters in the formerly rural county could once leave a job at a tack and feed store, for example, and fight fires all day, "that's frankly not a realistic expectation in today's work environment," Brown said.

Because of inflexible schedules and attrition, volunteers can answer only 53% of their calls, a recent department study found. While they often showed up at the station, they would sometimes not be qualified to drive an engine or supervise the crew, leaving them with no choice but to cede the call to full-time firefighters from other stations.

"That's like a roll of the dice," Brown said. "Right now, the program is not working."

To someone like 11-year veteran Young, who has worked on more Christmases than he can remember, such talk is hurtful.

"You take the proverbial bullet for your department and you're looking for the department to reciprocate in some way," he said. "You hope they keep us the way they are, but when they don't seem inclined to, you're disappointed."

More painful to Young is watching his unit being whittled away. Because there are so few volunteers, the unit's morale and attendance at training have suffered, he said.

As he sees it, volunteers face a Catch-22: There aren't enough volunteers to effectively respond to calls, but because volunteers don't go on enough assignments, they have little incentive to attend Wednesday night practices.

"You can't really blame them," he said. "Why would you keep practicing, if you know you're not going to get in the game?"

But no matter what happens to the program, Young said, he would have a hard time quitting, especially since he grew up in the Villa Park area.

"I'm like an older athlete who doesn't want to retire," he said. "Maybe I'm hoping someone will make that decision for me."

But others aren't that optimistic. Take Robert Diero. The 34-year-old looks like a fireman. He's got the handlebar mustache, gravelly voice and thick forearms.

Diero is convinced that the program will either be canceled or will be so "watered down" it won't be worth joining.

"I wouldn't want to just stand around and take orders," he said. "I'd rather be at home with my wife and my kids than sit on the sidelines." But he admits that the decision to quit would be difficult. He has fought more fires than he can count and helped deliver five babies. Those memories "stick with you a long time," he said.

"Unless someone has a heart attack right in front of me in the grocery store, I'll never be in position to save another life. It's hard to let stuff like that go."

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