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Rural Washington fire stations struggling to recruit new volunteers

Concerns are mounting regarding what the shortage could mean for response times to emergencies in rural communities.

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — Firefighting is a brotherhood.

Few people understand that better than Eric and Jason Vander Kooy.

They both joined the McLean Road Fire Department in rural Skagit County 28 years ago, becoming part of a close extended family.

"It's great working with my brother," said Eric Vander Kooy. "Everybody here is my brother and sister, too, when you've been here this long."

But that family is shrinking. The department is down to just 20 volunteers. That's half what it was when the Vander Kooys joined.

Those numbers mirror a statewide trend.

In 1984 there were 23,000 volunteer firefighters in Washington.

That number is now 10,000.

With calls, crashes, and crime climbing, along with a growing population, Jason Vander Kooy worries about what impact the dwindling numbers will have on the people of his community and the rest of rural Washington.

"The key is response time," Jason said. "If somebody's having a heart attack or a stroke you need to be there within minutes. You cannot wait 15 or 20 minutes."

Chief Brian Ekkelkamp's father and two sons are all members of the fire service.

"Getting new volunteers is getting harder as time goes on," he said. "They often come from our own families."

Ekkelkamp believes busy families, 800 hours of training and just $12 pay per call are keeping people away.

"It's a major commitment. There are lots of families where two people work and people just don't have the time anymore," he said. "The dedication isn't what it was years ago."

Without more volunteers, rural fire districts may have to turn to professional part-time fire crews which are much more expensive.

"Obviously, we could raise taxes and have paid firefighters, but there's something about taking care of your own with volunteers," said Jason Vander Kooy. 

For now, the Vander Kooy brothers encourage people across the state to join their firefighting family.

"It's very rewarding just knowing you're helping someone on a very bad day," said Eric Vander Kooy.

If you're interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter you're encouraged to simply stop by or call your local firehouse.

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