They help protect our community. Now they need community’s help

Bonnie Benitz dreamed of being a firefighter since she was a young girl.

When the Benton County Fire District 4 captain started volunteering in Clark County, she wasn’t thinking about getting paid.

“I really enjoy going out and helping people. They are having a really bad day, and sometimes I can do just a little bit to make that better,” she said.

When she started volunteering with the West Richland-based district 10 years ago, the sign in front of the Bombing Range Road fire station said firefighters went to 836 emergencies. Last year, they went to more than twice that many.

And while the number of career firefighters has grown, she said the number of new volunteers has dipped.

That is a trend fire district officials want to change.

The district just finished its largest single-year jump in emergencies since 2007. Officials circulated their year-end statistics for 2018 on Facebook recently, and it features an 18 percent increase in the number of calls last year.

While the 50-member department doesn’t respond to as many calls as Kennewick, Richland and Pasco fire departments, the percentage increase in the number of calls in the 53-square-mile district is close to or more than its firefighting neighbors, depending on the department.

Much of that jump is driven by the population growth in the district. Evidence of that growth can be seen right next to the district’s station on Bombing Range Road, where a once empty lot is being turned into homes. And that’s only one of the locations where homes are being built.

Developments are springing up along Van Giesen Street and Belmont Boulevard, and West Richland planners just started looking at an application to build about 600 new homes near the end of Keene Road, where a new station is planned.

An aging population

The new homes are attracting a wealthier and older group of people to the district. People who are more likely to need medical help, said Fire Chief Bill Whealan.

About 8,000 more people moved to the area since 2000, according to district officials.

It’s hard to get ahead of the growth, Whealan said. Fire districts rely on property taxes for funding, and that money doesn’t reach the district until a year after the homes are sold. With the steady growth, that is putting them continually behind.

While the district can turn to its neighbors for help, the amount of emergencies in Richland, Benton County Fire District 1 and 2 are also dealing with more calls.

“The time it really becomes problematic is when you start getting back-to-back calls,” the chief said. “Sometimes we’re getting back-to-back-to-back calls. We’re going to start looking at this.”

For now, the fire district is handling the increase, Whealan said.

District firefighters are averaging seven minutes to get to emergencies, which is a minute longer than their goal. That number is a bit skewed since it includes some of the calls in the far reaches of the district, he said.

Officials hope a new fire station being built and more volunteers will help cut those times.

Increasing outreach

While Whealan doesn’t have a specific number in mind for more volunteers, he dreams of having more volunteers than spots available. For now, he’s hoping to get as much help as he can. He is using every avenue he can to get the message out, whether it’s through Facebook, mailers or through the media.

It is a challenging spot to fill. Volunteers and career firefighters work similar shifts, spending a day at the station before going home. They also spend a lot of the first year training, and they need to have an employer that lets them spend a day working for the district. They also have to give up some of their time with friends and family.

The district does have other volunteering opportunities that don’t involve fighting fires, such as helping with office work, Whealan said.

For Kyle Jagelski, who began volunteering eight years ago, the trade-offs are worth it. He just finished a year when he spent more than 1,600 hours helping the district. It’s a feat not many volunteers can match, but flexibility with his work allowed him to spend the time with the district.

“It’s the best way to care for the community that you live in,” he said. “There’s all sorts of different ways you can volunteer, but being there for someone when they’re having the worst day is so rewarding.”

Anyone interested in learning more can contact Capt. Bob Shannon at bshannon@bcfd4.org or call the district at 509-967-2945.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.