Dickinson Fire Chief Jeremy Presnell detailed this issue to The Press, following a monthly report to the Dickinson City Commission Tuesday, June 1, at City Hall. In May, the fire department saw firsthand how volunteers are declining in Dickinson.
– Dickinson Fire Chief Jeremy Presnell
The optimal number of volunteer firefighters is 40 for the DFD, which helps spread the burden out and prevents burnout of full-time and part-time firefighters. Currently, the fire department is at approximately 26 to 28 volunteers and the number continues to fluctuate, Presnell said.
“The decrease in volunteers is (because) the time commitment has become a lot greater. And a lot of them are not ready to fulfill that,” Presnell said, adding, “We’ve actually hired some of our volunteers to the full-time side and we have not been able to replace them… Across the country, volunteerism is down and the fire service is not exempt from that and it’s actually impacting the fire service overall.”
The main avenue that the DFD recruits volunteers is through word of mouth from current volunteers. Presnell noted that his department is getting ready to launch a recruitment campaign within the next couple of weeks via social media and he hopes that will reach a broader audience.
“I don’t feel that we have a difficult time attracting quality volunteers. I feel that we have done an excellent job of attracting quality volunteers, which is evident in our current volunteer group. The time commitment required for the initial and ongoing training becomes difficult for people. All across the country, volunteerism is down,” Presnell said, adding, “In terms of retaining volunteers, we do an excellent job. A large majority of our volunteers have been on the department for five plus years and the majority of our full-time staff were hired from our volunteer group.”
A volunteer firefighter is someone who is “dedicated, service orientated, community-minded.” As a chief, Presnell is always looking for individuals who are eager to learn and want to give back to their community. Volunteering for the fire service is one way to achieve that, he added.
“The most fulfilling part of serving the community of Dickinson is being able to give back to the community by helping our neighbors,” he said. “Volunteers for the Dickinson Fire Department can expect to take away the feeling of being a part of an exceptional team and receiving world-class training.”
Presnell also noted how the DFD saw an increase in response times in May. Station 1 responded to 61% of the calls, or 43 incidents, and Station 2 responded to 39% of the calls, or 27 reports. Response times increased overall in May compared to April’s report, from six minutes and 18 seconds at Station 1 and eight minutes and 15 seconds at Station 2.
Presnell noted that the reason for the one minute and 15 second jump in response time at Station 2 compared to April is due to the location of the calls. Some of the calls were out of the area and others were in the middle of neighborhoods where fire trucks had to slow down, proving how response time was a challenge in May for fire crews.
Firefighters also ran into issues with its failing radio system.
“It’s an antiquated system, and now it’s very sensitive. When we get any kind of weather front end, it’s impacted by that weather front (with) a lot of interference,” Presnell said. “We’ve tried locating where that interference is coming from. We’re just not sure, but it pretty much makes our radio system inoperable.”
To help combat failing radio systems, the state has launched SIRN 20/20, or the North Dakota Interoperable Radio Network, which is a statewide solution for delivering an interoperable radio system for public safety communities. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the campaign was pushed back. But Presnell is hoping that the new communication system for first responders will be coming down the pipeline by the end of this year.
With the new system, the DFD will enhance its coverage and firefighters will all have new handheld radios, portables as well as in-vehicle radios.
Presnell also reported to the commission that the DFD responded to 70 calls for service in May, marking it at 336 calls year-to-date. Fire personnel experienced a 40% increase in calls from 2020. Calls ranged from 23 emergency medical service incidents, 15 false alarms or false calls, 11 fires, 11 service calls, six good intent calls and four hazardous condition incidents.
Fire personnel conducted 238 hours of training in May, which puts the department at 3,391 hours for the year and approximately 54% of the total required training for 2021.
Now as June unfolds, Presnell will be approaching his one-year anniversary as chief, and hopes that the end of May precipitation will alleviate some of the fire calls until drought weather conditions arise.