In recent years, the Blair Volunteer Fire Department (BVFD) has seen its calls increase to record numbers,
while its number of volunteers have decreased.
BVFD has struggled with the need for manpower, particularly during daytime hours when many of its members are working. Fire officials have worked to find solutions, including recruiting more volunteers.
Blair and other fire districts within the county also have relied heavily on the use of mutual aid to respond to calls, but BVFD and the City of Blair may want to look at other options if calls continue to increase. They could look no further than a neighbor to the south for inspiration.
This week, the Bennington Rural Fire District received approval from the Washington County Board of Supervisors and Douglas County Commissioners to transition from a rural fire district to a suburban fire district. The decision will allow the department to increase property tax to hire up to eight paid personnel, including a fire chief and paramedics, while still relying on volunteers.
The move was prompted by growth and development in Bennington's district and the increasing amount of calls to which the department responds.
The Bennington and Blair fire departments somewhat mirror each other. Both have seen increased calls over the last five years, and both have seen a decrease in volunteers over the years.
Bennington, which covers 42 square miles of northwestern Douglas County and 6 square miles of southern Washington County, responded to 904 calls in 2019. Blair responded to 938.
Bennington has only 34 volunteers, while Blair had as few as 39 in 2019 before increasing to 50 in September.
Bennington is expected to reach 1,000 calls in 2020. It wouldn't be unreasonable to think that Blair, which has seen an increase in calls every year for the last five years, with the exception of 2017, would also reach that number. In 2017, the department had about 50 fewer calls than the previous year.
While there has been no official discussion, some have asked if Blair should consider a paid EMS service rather than volunteer rescue. Rescue calls make up a majority of the calls to which the volunteers respond.
Such a move would certainly mean an increase in taxes. However, as the number of volunteers decrease and the call numbers remain steady or continue to rise, the department will face burnout.
BVFD provides a valuable to service to the community and the volunteers themselves are appreciated. It takes a lot of time and effort to serve.
Having a combination volunteer/paid fire department may be the answer for Blair. The city and the department should watch the transition in Bennington closely, talk with those involved and the community to see if this could be the right option for Blair.