Four firefighters solely in charge of responding to three towns, without volunteers, would be a reality in Buckley, Wilkeson, and Carbonado
The Buckley Fire Department is 90% run by volunteers.
That’s usually enough for things to run smoothly, said Chief Eric Skogen, but they could always use more volunteers since there are times when there are only one or two firefighters at the Buckley station when five firefighters are the ideal number of firefighters at the station at all times.
But the situation is worse out near Wilkeson and Carbonado because they don’t have enough local volunteers to respond in cities all of the time.
In Buckley, the fire department’s average response time is six minutes and one second, but in Wilkeson, the average response time is ten minutes and 15 seconds. It’s even longer for Carbonado, where the response time is 11 minutes and 41 seconds.
Buckley Fire Department Recruitment and Retention Coordinator Cameron Nixon said there are times when someone might arrive on the scene in plain street clothes, but they’re a volunteer who might be CPR certified. These are the people who Nickson said help speed up response time in places like Wilkeson and Carbonado.
“In-city volunteers are our main need. People that are in the city of Buckley, Wilkeson, and Carbonado, and to another extent, Green Water and Crystal Mountain, people that can respond from home, “Nickson said. “This includes retired people, stay-at-home moms, people who own their own businesses in town.”
Nickson said although Wilkeson does have its own fire department, almost 100% of the time, no one is there because there aren’t enough volunteers.
The Buckley Fire Department cannot hire many people, and the pay the volunteers receive is limited, with them earning stipends of $5 to $10 per call depending on their certifications and seniority, $15 per assigned shift worked at the station, and $1.50 per hour for training.
Despite this, Nickson said the department has many volunteers, but as Skogen said, there could never be enough. He said they have a high turnover rate, and it’s not because of the culture but because the department can be a good jump-off point for people interested in career firefighting. An allure of the department, Nickson said, could be that the Buckley station is the only station in Pierce County offering EMT training on-site. He said other places usually send their students off to take classes at a college, but people who are volunteers in Buckley, become firefighters and EMT certified by the end of their training.
“Bringing people in is not a problem. The number one issue the department has is keeping people… because a lot of the people who come to us want to get a career in the fire service and get a paid job,” Nickson said. “So there are people sitting in this room right now who are volunteers with us who are gonna leave in the next couple months to go to career paid positions, and for us, it’s bittersweet.”
At that time, three volunteers were sitting at the table with Nickson and Skogen, and two of them were due to move on to their paid position soon.
One of those volunteers was Jadon Sundstrom. Sundstrom said since a young age, fire trucks were intriguing, and that’s how his firefighter journey began.
“So about the time I was five, I grew up down the road from station 112 east pierce, and the engines would drive by, and I would tell my mom, ‘I wanna be a fire truck.’ My Mom knew I couldn’t be a fire truck, so we started going to an open house, and one of the firefighters at the open house told me about an explorer program in the city of Buckley,” Sundstrom said.
He said this was at 13, and he didn’t know what a firefighter did, but he said the first day he came in for the explorer’s program, he saw the red trucks, and they did a fire hydrant drill, and he was hooked.
Until he became a legal adult, Sundstrom said, every Tuesday, he came to the Buckley fire department for the explorer program and did drills. In those years, he never went on a call and was only trained with the firefighters, but he said he felt like he was on the team.
When he was 18, Sundstrom said he went to college and began to feel homesick, not from missing home but from not being with his team.
“It was like feeling homesick, and I called now retired Chief Predmore and said, ‘Hey are you guys taking applications,’ and he said, ‘Always.’ I came right back home, put in my application, joined the academy like a week later, got through it, and became a volunteer. Buckley has always been my home, I love it here. Kind of sad I’m one of the people leaving for a career department,” Sundstrom said.
Despite knowing he’ll miss Buckley, he said he only sees it as temporary and wants to return to Buckley down the road.
“But, the way I look at it is I’m going to a career department, so that way I can further some skills, learn more, and then in 20 years, I’ll be right back home volunteering,” Sundstrom said, “That’s ultimately the goal. Once you become a firefighter, you’re never done being a firefighter.”