BLACK HILLS, S.D. (KELO) — Volunteer firefighters in the Black Hills are in high demand. And an ongoing threat of forest fires has local departments concerned.
Fire Chief Joe Tjaden has been with the Rapid Valley Fire Department for more than 20 years. Over the years, he’s seen a lot of fires but he’s never seen an issue quite like this.
“People are being required more at work, more at home with homeschooling, more hours at their jobs and so they don’t have the hours to give to the volunteer departments,” Chief Tjaden said.
Chief Tjaden says the local fire department has lost nearly 15 firefighters in the last two years.
“If we went back to the beginning of 2020, we had about 45 members on the list. Right now, we are at about 30. Of those 30 due to the time constraints and everything, we are looking at about 5 to 10 that can actually carry the weight of the department,” Chief Tjaden said.
With the population across the Black Hills on the rise, the lack of volunteer firefighters is a growing concern.
“At the same time last year we had about a 22 percent increase in calls, this year we’ve had a 10 percent increase in calls and it still falls back to that core group. This is not unique to Rapid Valley, every department you talk to can tell you the same story that they are trying to unfortunately do more with less. And it’s becoming more evident and realistic,” Chief Tjaden said.
“Things have just changed, we don’t have the volunteers that we need, and everything is getting more expensive. The cost of doing business is getting very high with the fire service. It always has and we’ve always made do, but we are at a tipping point,” Ast. Fire Chief Matt Spring, Custer Volunteer Fire Dept., said.
90 percent of the local fire departments here in South Dakota are all volunteers. Which means a vast majority of our firefighters are not getting paid.
“The biggest concern is people powering the station and getting an appropriate response out that we can safely respond to,” Chief Spring said.
Matt Spring is the Assistant Chief of the Custer Volunteer Fire Department, which now has less than 30 firefighters.
“My biggest fear if we don’t have more support for more firefighters to help out, financial support, I think these fire departments in 3 to 5 years, especially Custer, we may have to close our doors,” Cheif Spring said.
This past year the departments responded to a record number of calls.
“Our runs have increased 40 percent this year, we were running a call every three days, now we are running a call every two days. So we are looking at around 200 calls this year,” Chief Spring said.
“We do not have the amount of people coming into the service that we have had in the past. The impact that we are seeing with the amount of people moving into the area, the run volume and call volume continues to escalate county-wide and state-wide,” Harvey said.
Jerome Harvey with the Pennington County Fire Service says it’s a problem across the board.
“Volunteerism nationwide, worldwide is on the decline. We see that not only statewide but locally. With the volunteer fire departments, ambulance services, with all of our volunteer emergency services and it doesn’t just impact the volunteer emergency services. It impacts everything from little league to church groups to anything that relies on non-profit or volunteerism,” Harvey said.
And in order to face these challenges, Harvey says there need to be some changes.
“The state needs to look at this seriously and realize that the critical infrastructure to support the explosion of people and demand on services is not keeping pace with our ability to provide for that through our volunteers,” Harvey said.
“As far as a leader in this department and other leaders in this county, it is a great concern,” Chief Spring said.
The vast majority of these volunteer firefighters are not getting paid, so the fire departments still rely on many residents, funds and donations to keep them in operation.