I was in the bedroom trying to determine if my latest allergic reaction was going to go full-blown and restrict my airway again or if it was going to be a mini-version and just result in body hives.
Meanwhile, the cat had puked a plate-sized glob of beige mush and hair onto the hallway carpet. My 9- and 7-year-old daughters were in the living room watching TV while mom worked the night shift at the nursing home, just a few blocks away.
Twenty-five years ago, I was still trying to determine the root cause of my reactions, but when the symptoms started there wasn’t a lot of time to slow them down. I carried an EpiPen but didn’t want to jam that needle into my thigh unless it was absolutely necessary. Usually, I opted for Benadryl, but that had a lag time, meaning I would experience 30 minutes of whatever level the reaction was going to take.
In a worst-case scenario, I would struggle to breathe. A best-case was the incredibly itchy welts that started at my head and worked their way down my body.
This particular reaction seemed more severe than average. Rather than face the impending possibility of passing out and traumatizing my daughters, I collapsed on the bed and yelled to my older daughter to call 911. That alone was terrifying for her. Yet she performed the request admirably.
In less than 10 minutes, volunteer firefighters were at the front door, trudging through our house, stepping over the cat puke, and into the bedroom where I was laying on a bed trying to control my breathing. Everything after that is a blur. I’m certain they performed a quick medical assessment, something firefighters are trained to do, strapped an oxygen mask on my face and likely administered a shot of adrenaline. My wife had also rushed home at this point, thanks to a quick phone call from my daughter. I was compromised.
For me, it was a rare, yet critical need for local emergency services. I’d seen these same firefighters many times in the field, exposing themselves to dangerous fires, hazardous chemical spills and countless medical situations like mine. For them, it was just another day, which would be repeated elsewhere countless times during the next year.
Some of the firefighters who showed up that day are still on the force, but they are much older, something faced by many departments throughout Minnesota and the country. Not only is the average age of firefighters increasing, but it’s also becoming more difficult to attract new firefighters to this unique calling.
According to the Minnesota State Volunteer Fire Association, an estimated 20,800 firefighters represent 787 fire departments in the state. More than 18,000 are volunteers. These are people from the community who see a need and desire to serve in this critical part of the local infrastructure.
Like law enforcement, we expect them to respond when we need them. In many ways, we take for granted that they will be there in an emergency.
Although many departments are staffed adequately today, there are many more that aren’t.
Since 1984, the decline in firefighters has been a slow burn. There were 897,000 volunteer firefighters nationwide 37 years ago, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. It faltered to 745,000 by 2018, a 17% decline.
Part of the issue is just the lack of time to donate to firefighting. People seem to have less of it today and have to divide it up between so many commitments. And not everyone can drop what they are doing at work to respond to an emergency call, a prerequisite for volunteer firefighters. But without those firefighters, we have a dilemma.
In the relatively small community of Bayport, a population of just under 4,000, firefighters responded to 1,229 calls in 2018. That was double what was needed just 10 years earlier.
In Elk River, a growth area, officials expect a dozen firefighters to retire in the next two years, as they prepare to open a third fire station.
In Cambridge, fire officials held a recruitment night in the fall of 2020 to entice more people to step forward for volunteer positions. Part of the challenge is that people don’t put down roots in a community like they did years ago. That leads to more transient populations who are less likely to commit to a firefighter role.
There is also a reality check for many who inquire about firefighting in today’s world. There are far more medical calls than fires and that doesn’t necessarily fit the image of being a firefighter. Then there is the heavy commitment to training, which is ongoing. And in smaller communities, where local jobs are less bountiful, proximity to even be able to respond to an emergency call has become a bigger challenge.
All of this is important locally because firefighters, especially in rural areas, are often the first ones on the scene when there is an emergency. If there are fewer of them available, that means slower response times, which has ramifications for us all.
Ultimately it may lead to more mergers of fire departments, the need for local communities to increase compensation for firefighters when they do respond to calls and the potential enticement of heftier pensions. Certainly, creativity will be needed to attract new, younger firefighters as Boomers age out.
The American firefighter is simply too important for us to let them figure out how to fight this emergency on their own. They need our support. In some cases, they need our time and talents for fundraisers. And for a select few, your strength, intellect and desire to serve will be needed as a new corps of firefighters.
To find out how you can help, contact your local fire department or go to www.msfda.org to find your local department.
My allergic reaction was quickly brought under control because of volunteer firefighters. They stayed with me for the entirety of my emergency and ensured our kids were also OK. Then they packed up their gear, gave me a pat on the back and disappeared into the evening dark.
Today, we can’t afford to let them just disappear into the dark.
Keith Anderson is director of news for APG of East Central Minnesota.