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WENATCHEE, Wash. (AP) — Strict state and federal regulations are making it "harder and harder" to get qualified volunteer firefighters, says the chief of Chelan County Fire District 1.
To improve that situation, Mike Burnett and fire district officials have organized a two-year college program locally that trains volunteers to work for the district, while helping them find career jobs.
"The days of the farmer, orchardist, business owner coming down and helping the community with a fire, then going back to work are pretty much gone," Burnett said.
This fall marks the second year of the college program. During students' first year, they take regular classes at Wenatchee Valley College, then, in their second year, they transfer to Spokane Community College and enroll in its fire-science program.
Chelan County Fire District 1 has partnered with the Spokane college to teach second-year students in the district. Currently, there are four first-year students who work as volunteer, resident firefighters.
There are also 12 second-year students. Of those, six are residents whose tuition is paid by the district. The other six do not live at fire district stations and they pay their own tuition.
All of the students, Burnett said, help the district's nine professional firefighters.
"The program is not designed to replace career firefighters but to augment the services that the career firefighters are providing," Burnett said.
With wages and benefits, he said, a professional firefighter can cost from $80,000 to $120,000 a year. For a volunteer in the fire-science program, he estimates it costs the district $10,000 a year. Burnett said he thinks his is the only fire district in North Central Washington in a partnership with a college's fire-science program. He said he would like other fire districts to sponsor students in the fire science program.
Finding career firefighting jobs is tough, Burnett said. Locally, there is little turnover so students know going in that they will probably be looking for jobs in larger urban areas.
Among the second-year students are two Wenatchee High School graduates: Mitch Marcuson, 21; and Will Burwell, 19.
Marcuson is an EMT who also works for Lifeline Ambulance. "It's a lot easier to get a job when you have a degree," he said.
Both men said they've thought about being firefighters since they were boys.
"I'm sure every boy wanted to be a firefighter when they were a little kid," Marcuson said.
Today, he said, he wants the job because "it's physically demanding, it's a rewarding job because you get to help people, and you get to do fun stuff that normal people don't get to do. Most people don't get to be inside a burning building or save somebody's life."
Information from: The Wenatchee World, http://www.wenatcheeworld.com