Rekindling the ranks
Appeal Staff Writer
The vastness and dramatic growth in Central Lyon County has made fires a more likely and more dangerous occurrence.
“As we get bigger, the risk gets bigger,” said Fire Chief John Gillenwater, head of the Central Lyon County Fire District. “And one of the things that we battle here is the shape of our district. We represent nearly the same amount of people as Fernley, but they only need three fire stations and we have eight.”
Unfortunately, the ranks of the volunteer firefighting forces, a backbone of any fire district, haven’t kept up with the growth.
“We always have open recruitment,” Gillenwater said. “Our goal is 50 good responding volunteers. Currently we have about 40, and core members – who do most of the work – are down to about 20.
The Silver Springs Volunteer Fire Department used to have 30 members, said Volunteer Fire Chief Bill Snyder. Now they’re down to 14. It’s the largest of the Lyon VFDs, but, Snyder said, its members are still too few.
“We used to have 30 and that’s the number we like, because with 30 people you can always get a big crew,” he said. “Otherwise, you have people working different hours during the day and you might end up with one person at a time.”
Snyder said volunteer forces are necessary to augment the paid firefighting staff.
“There’s no way this district can afford to put in a paid fire station and man it 24/7,” he said. “There’s no tax base for it.”
Although Silver Springs has the most volunteers, Snyder said, the area they cover is larger than the other departments.
“We cover 264 or 265 square miles,” he said. “We also respond to Stagecoach. They have their own fire department, but they only have a few volunteers. We do a lot of mutual aid to them, to Fernley and to Yerington.”
Rich Zierenberg, the county’s code enforcement officer and a director of the Central Lyon County Fire District, said volunteering for the fire department can be exciting.
“A lot of them like having their regular jobs and having this as an exciting secondary job,” Zierenberg said.
He said the Central Lyon Fire District comprises volunteer fire departments in Dayton, Mound House, Silver City, Silver Springs and Stagecoach as well as the paid staff at the Sutro Fire Station. Overseeing it all is Gillenwater and a five-member board of directors.
Snyder said one reason the county was losing volunteers was because after the training, volunteer firefighters go on to paid jobs with other departments.
“I’ve had people that got all the training and then went elsewhere,” he said. “Then some recently had babies and had to quit. The only one that actually stuck around is my son.”
Gillenwater, who began as a reserve firefighter in Washoe County, also mentioned work and family demands as one reason volunteerism has fallen off in the firefighting ranks.
“It’s tough because of family commitments and job commitments,” he said. “Employers are not always willing to give the time off.”
Those who can volunteer, Gillenwater said, do so for two reasons.
“One is to serve their community and to give back to their neighbors,” he said. “The other is to prepare for a career in fire services.”
Gillenwater said the district has volunteers, reserve firefighters and paid staff.
Snyder estimated the Silver Springs VFD responds to 800 calls a year, or about three per day.
“Some days you won’t have none, and some days all we do is run,” he said.
Volunteer firefighters work with other county offices, such as the sheriff’s office and animal control, Snyder said. “We all interact together when it comes to an incident.”
Prospective firefighters can start while in high school by joining the district’s cadet program. From there they get about three to four months of training before they can go out on calls.
Snyder said all of the departments need more volunteers. While some accept volunteers who live outside the station’s community, Silver Springs and Mound House have residency requirements.
“We’ve kind of become the new civil defense,” Gillenwater said. “We are in charge of homeland security. Some think of us as a kind of New-Age Minuteman.”
— Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 882-2111 ext. 351.