GOLD HILL — Jackson County Fire District No. 3 volunteer Kyle Kinser took a rare day off from his post at the agency's Gold Hill fire station on Sept. 8 to enjoy a sunny, warm, late summer day.
Of course, a blaze broke out that afternoon in a home on Maple Lane, just down the road from the empty fire station, which usually is staffed with volunteers and interns eager to learn on the job by attacking a fire.
"That Maple fire just happened on the wrong day," Kinser said, disappointment etched on his face.
The fire burned a garage and the nearby home before it was extinguished by District 3 crews who had rushed to the scene from White City and Central Point.
It took 12 minutes for those crews to arrive. By that time, Archie Powers' home was in ruins, and he was left wondering why there was a fire station in Gold Hill if it wasn't staffed.
What he didn't know is that District 3 is not required by law to keep Gold Hill's station manned with firefighters. It is a volunteer station that is staffed only when there are available bodies.
This is an issue that District 3 Chief Dan Petersen is working to correct. The chief has made it a priority that the agency build a thriving volunteer corps that will keep the Gold Hill station staffed at all times.
This task has been given to Battalion Chief Brandon Mitchell. He was recruited away from a fire agency in the Atlanta area to help with District 3's volunteer and rural fire programs.
"We are determined to increase the reliability and dependability of our responses to the rural areas and Gold Hill," Mitchell said.
Petersen added that even if the Gold Hill station had been staffed that day, the crew might have been on a medical call in Sams Valley when the fire sparked.
"There still might not have been anyone at the station, because they could have been on a heart attack call," Petersen said.
Building a solid volunteer corps is a demanding process. Not anyone can just sign up to man a shift at the Gold Hill station, Petersen said.
"The training and time commitments involved make it difficult for most people to be volunteers," Petersen said.
The federal standard for a volunteer demands that he or she have significant training in fire science and safety, Petersen said. Prospective volunteers have to train for about eight hours a day for a month before they can be stationed.
These standards involve training in medical emergency techniques, wildland fire suppression strategies and proper engine driving.
When the agency implemented these new standards about three years ago, it had to dismiss about half of its volunteer force. They simply didn't meet the federal requirements, Petersen said.
District 3 has since instituted an intern program in which it will pay for a college student's studies in fire science at Rogue Community College in exchange for shift hours at the volunteer station.
Petersen said these interns are go-getters looking to start a career in firefighting.
"They come here and are dedicated and want to learn," Petersen said. "And when they leave here, we have provided them with a great resumé."
Often, these interns are hired by other agencies or are taken on by District 3 as fully paid firefighters, Petersen said.
The agency has budgeted for 14 intern positions and hopes to fill them all. However, finding interns can be difficult.
"They are in a position of public trust and they have to meet the background and character standards for the job," Mitchell said.
Response times to Gold Hill have dipped to about four minutes when the station is staffed with volunteers and interns, Petersen said. Though generally there is someone at the station at all times — including a person who lives there — the department's goal is to develop a schedule several weeks out that guarantees staffing at the station 24/7.
"We are going to see our volunteer force increase significantly," Petersen said.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.