Area fire departments face critical shortage

Clare is promoting the need for more firefighters with this picture of the structure fire they fought on Fourth Street in Clare in 2015.

Clare is promoting the need for more firefighters with this picture of the structure fire they fought on Fourth Street in Clare in 2015.

By Pat Maurer
Correspondent
Photos by Bob Guiliani

After years of high unemployment, the working environment seems to have changed. Many employers are finding it more and more difficult to find workers.
This is a huge problem for the volunteer fire departments around the state and country and in Clare County.

Clare County, along with the whole country, is struggling with a critical shortage of firefighters especially this year, although the problem has been building for the past few years.

Clare Fire Chief Jim Chapman is worried, as are the other fire chiefs in the area. He said the membership on the department has been “really fluctuating” for the past year.

His is the department with the fewest available firefighters.

Shown here are 11 out of the 17-member Clare Fire Department. Two members are on medical leave and two others work, or live outside of town making it difficult for them to be on hand for calls. Shown here (from left) in back row are: Ryan Brooke, Ernie Wilson, Jeff Michels, Training Officer Lt. Ethan Gage, and Orrin Marshall. In the front are: Captain Chad Michels, Assistant Training Officer Jarred Wentworth, Chief Jim Chapman, Tim Sharrow, Assistant Chief Sam Eberhardt and Mike Sargent. Firefighters not pictured include: Gary Bauer, Jay Kleinhardt, Dennis Koch, Kevin Wilber, Joe Huston, Spencer King, Marve Farley and Fire Department Photographer Bob Guiliani.

Shown here are 11 out of the 17-member Clare Fire Department. Two members are on medical leave and two others work, or live outside of town making it difficult for them to be on hand for calls. Shown here (from left) in back row are: Ryan Brooke, Ernie Wilson, Jeff Michels, Training Officer Lt. Ethan Gage, and Orrin Marshall. In the front are: Captain Chad Michels, Assistant Training Officer Jarred Wentworth, Chief Jim Chapman, Tim Sharrow, Assistant Chief Sam Eberhardt and Mike Sargent. Firefighters not pictured include: Gary Bauer, Jay Kleinhardt, Dennis Koch, Kevin Wilber, Joe Huston, Spencer King, Marve Farley and Fire Department Photographer Bob Guiliani.

Harrison has 17 certified and ten cadets, said Harrison Fire Chief Chris Damvelt. “Two are completing Firefighter 1 and 2 training and will be certified in May.” He said the cadets are used a lot but not to go inside a burning building. “They go on calls and do almost everything except drive a truck and go inside at a fire. Each are mentored by a certified firefighter.” He continued, 17 is not a very good number. I would feel better if I had 25 firefighters.” He added, “It’s tough to find volunteers. We used to have a waiting list of people.”

Surrey Township’s Fire Chief Dave Williams said his department has 15 certified members. “We would like to have 25,” he said. Firefighters have been on the department from one to 24 years, Williams said. “Daytime is when I really need help.”

Lincoln Township has 18 firefighters on the department. All are active and one is in training now. “We would like to have 20 to 25,” Chief Dale Majewski said. “Not everybody is around all the time. All of the county departments watch out for each other, if we need mutual aid we call and they come.”

Garfield Township Fire Department has the least problem with manpower. “We have 22 members, six who are probationary and one who is a cadet. We are looking for more firefighters,” said Fire Chief Kevin Tubbs.

The problem is there are not as many people willing to volunteer and become a fireman anymore.

If there is a serious fire, Clare, Surrey, Harrison, Garfield and Lincoln Fire Departments may have to rely on mutual aid because they don’t have enough firefighters that can respond to handle it.

In fact, Clare, with 17 members on the department (two of those on medical leave and two who live, or work out of the area) is down to 13 firefighters able to answer calls and even less that are available during the daytime hours when firemen may be unable to come.

“Five of our guys are nearing retirement age,” Clare Chief Jim Chapman said, “two of them have been Clare firemen for over 40 years. The situation is getting serious.”


In his written report to the Clare City Commission at the last meeting, he said, “We are working on recruiting new members for the Fire Department. We have enlisted the National Volunteer Fire Council for their help with recruiting retaining members.

He said, “When there is a structure fire we can’t even go into the building unless there is either a confirmed victim inside or if we have a minimum of four firefighters present and ready to go inside. We have to call for mutual aid.”

Chapman said he attended a recruiting and retention seminar put on by the Michigan Fire Chief’s Association in February. “This isn’t just in Clare County, it’s a national issue – it’s all over the country,” he said. All of the county’s fire chiefs said the same thing.

“We learned at the seminar that there no perfect solution to the manpower shortage. We just have to get the message out to the community about how the fire department operates and how to become a member.”

He said the ideal number of firefighters for the Clare Fire Department would be 26. They are allowed to have up to 30, he said. “Our job is not just about fighting fires, we respond to everything from cats in trees to water rescues. We are the first line of defense for the community.”

Surrey’s Chief Williams said, “If people want to help out the community, this is a good way to do it. It’s very important for us to fill our ranks, but we have had a low number of applicants in the past few years.”

And the other departments also have aging firefighters on the departments. Garfield Chief Tubbs said, we have one firefighter who has been with the department for over 20 years. Some have been on over ten years.”

Although they are volunteers, all the department’s firefighters get paid. They get between $10 and $14.50 per hour depending on whether they are probationary or have completed the State training and are certified.

Chapman outlined what it takes to become a volunteer fireman or woman. “Training takes about five months and classes are two night a week. New members are on the department one year before they take the training.” He added the Fire Department is open to men and women over 18. “Some of our best firefighters are women,” Chapman said.

He said the average time members spend with the department is six hour a week.

People interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter should call the department at 386-2151 or Chief Chapman at 989-326-2263.

The number in Harrison is 539-7145 Extension 7. Chief Damvelt said “We are trying to recruit move volunteers on Facebook and we are working on a strategy to work with the high schools.”

To volunteer on the Surrey Township Fire Department, interested people can show up at the regular 7 p.m. Monday night meeting or call 588-6914. “We handle an average of 45 to 50 calls a month,” Chief Williams said, “sometimes it is more, sometimes less.”

To be on the Garfield Township Fire Department, Chief Tubbs said to call his cell phone at 989-741-3794. “We are always looking or more firefighters.”

Lincoln Township Chief Majewski said the training to be a volunteer firefighter is the same as for a large metro fire department. “We are trying to mention our need for volunteers whenever we can.” He said he will meet with State Representative Jason Wentworth next week to discuss problems like unfunded mandates that affect the department and staffing issues. “Anyone interested in joining the fire department can call 588-9402 or 588-9069,” he said.

Chapman said, “We are all a team, we are a family oriented organization. We rely on each other. We are responsible for our members. We are also responsible to our community and we need help.”

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