Be a Community Member on The Long Way Home

I recently asked a guy I’d just met what it meant to him to be a resident on the North Shore. He answered, “Being a resident is one thing, being a community member is 100% different.”

I thought about that at a recent meeting of the Board of Directors of the Colvill Area Volunteer Fire Department (CAVFD), where I volunteer, as we were discussing ways to recruit new community members.

About 25 years ago, a group of people in Colvill, an unincorporated area about 10 miles east of Grand Marais, started the CAVFD. Two factors spurred the group's effort.

First was protection from fires. The second was financial. Having an organized fire department near enough to the group's houses would see a reduction of up to ten percent on homeowners insurance.

The original group included a couple of retired guys who spearheaded the organizing efforts. More than a dozen volunteers in the sweet spot age group of 40 to 50 years old assumed the role of officers and firefighters.

At the time, Cook County was implementing an emergency management system that included fire numbers for every property. CAVFD volunteers installed those fire numbers, pounding green posts into the ground and mounting the blue numbers for every property in the district, even in the most remote of locations. The county paid the department a fee per sign, the first source of revenue.

Used turnout gear was donated, along with the first truck, from the Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service.

The next generation of organizers, from the original group of firefighters, stepped up to create a strong department. They built a permanent fire hall along Highway 61 using grants to buy materials and volunteer labor from community members. They acquired a few more trucks (always purchased used, but in good condition), and provided training and a retirement account for firefighters. All while managing to keep the expense to taxpayers as low as possible. I’m biased perhaps, but it is the leanest taxpayer-supported organization in the county.

Now those original firefighters and officers are 25 years older and there aren’t many younger people stepping in to fill their boots and turnout gear.

We know a shortage of volunteer first responders is true everywhere. On the other hand, we each know of younger folks resident or soon to be in the area who could fill those boots and gear if they’d take the chance. Trouble is, how do we get them to go from resident to community member as a part of the CAVFD team?

Reasons cited in articles about the volunteer shortage include time limitations, training demands, and demographic shifts. Those would have been reasons 25 years ago for people not to join too, but as community members, they joined anyway.

CAVFD volunteers are asked to attend a couple of evening training sessions each month at the fire hall, practicing with and maintaining equipment. Depending on the level of certification sought by an individual, state-certified training will consume some time, but the department covers the cost. A person could join the department today and serve the community for several months before deciding to pursue state certification.

The CAVFD mostly responds to medical calls, vehicle incidents, and support for Search and Rescue and nearby fire districts. A few callouts each month.

CAVFD, like every fire department in northeast Minnesota, needs community members to step in and provide the skills and leadership to keep a high level of fire fighting and other emergency services. We’re just a little short on the best ideas to bring them in.

Every community member, even old folks like me, can help the local fire department. Reach out to the current leadership of your local department and see what you can do to help sustain an important community asset.