By Selwyn Harris
Ask anyone about the future of the Pahrump Town Board and inevitably the discussion leads to the fire department, the most expensive line item in the town’s budget.
Once voters agreed to turn the board into an advisory-only body after current members serve out their terms, whispers of what it all means for the fire department began to spread.
Is it possible the fire department could once again become an all-volunteer force — reverting back to its roots much like the town board is set to do in two years.
Such talk gives Justin Snow, president of the local firefighters’ union, cause for concern.
He says the call volume within the valley is too high for any type of volunteer force to handle properly.
“They say that it takes about seven volunteers to make up for one professional firefighter and that is simply because it takes that many people working full time jobs to have somebody available at all times. You are looking at several hundred people, assuming some are working on the weekends. It simply wouldn’t work,” he said.
Snow pointed to one crucial aspect of having a professional force on duty at the fire station — response times are often the difference between life and death.
“One of the things you are paying for with a professional fire department is that the guys are there all of the time ready to take the call. With volunteers, somebody has to go to the station, get the equipment and then go out there. It doesn’t matter if they live right down the street. Somebody showing up at a house fire with no equipment is no good no matter how well trained they are,” Snow said.
Former Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue Service’s John O’Brien is all too familiar with problems a volunteer crew faces.
O’Brien began as a volunteer in Pahrump back in 1989. He became a paid firefighter in 1997. He said many of the volunteers had full-time jobs during that time, which left the town with just a handful of volunteers.
“We had a very small fire department during the daytime. From about six a.m. until six or seven at night. There was just one or two people here in the valley running all of the calls,” he said.
O’Brien noted that even though there were fewer residents and homes at the time, the fire crews had to travel long distances to respond to calls.
“This place was not as developed as it is now and there was a lot of areas to cover between calls. You were looking at long travel times to get to those calls. We had the three stations. Station 2 was out on Bell Vista, Station 3 was on Kellogg and Station 1 was sitting in the middle of town,” he said.
O’Brien also expanded on Snow’s point about having to abandon your full-time job in order to respond to an emergency where time is of the essence.
“I had both a pager and a radio and you would have nobody responding. You would have to stop working and park your vehicle at the closest station to the call then grab an apparatus and run the call. When you got back, you would park everything and get everything cleaned up again and then you would have to start back where you left off at work. It made the days very long,” he said.
During Pahrump’s volunteer fire department years, O’Brien spoke about what anyone would consider intolerable.
He noted there were times that no volunteer was able to respond to an emergency.
“There were times where nobody did respond. We had hay fires, structure fires, and motor vehicle accidents. I remember one afternoon when we had very high winds and we had a fire on a doublewide off of Elizabeth down on the south end of the valley. It started in the fireplace and me and one other person were the only ones fighting the fire. The sheriff’s department was helping us with that call. The main problem we had was there were about 17 people on the roster because the majority of the people worked during the daytime,” he said.
Yet another drawback of reverting to a volunteer force, according to O’Brien, was that it was next to impossible to make plans to spend time with family due to the nature of the job.
He noted that there were many times where he had to drop his fork at the dinner table to rush out on a call.
“You can’t make plans at all and that was the problem. I remember many times where I had to drop what I was doing and leave to go on a call. My family got put on hold. There were a lot of instances in the middle of the night where nobody would answer the page and instead of getting sleep, you’d have to get out of bed, go run the call, turn around and go back to bed again and try to continue what you were doing,” he said.
Responding to emergencies was not the only job volunteers were tasked to perform.
O’Brien also said that he would have to pull maintenance on all of the vehicles the fire department used.
Sometimes the work required specialized knowledge. Other times the department would not have the right vehicle to do the job.
“Sometime we had no fire trucks and that’s a big problem because we had no good structure fire apparatus at that particular point so we had to go into scramble mode to try to get fire trucks back into service that were out on maintenance issues. I remember being out in the middle of the desert putting a transmission into one of the fire trucks in the desert,” he recalled.
By nature, volunteers were not paid, but they did receive what was known as a per diem for each call they responded to.
The allotment helped to pay for expenses driving back and forth to the station in their personal vehicles.
All volunteers back in the day did receive training.
Crews were required to remain certified by taking what was known as Continuing Education Units CEU’s on a more or less regular basis.
Even with the certification, O’Brien said he would still not be comfortable with an all-volunteer force.
“Having been a volunteer fire department before and seeing the paid department as it is being run right now, I’m completely behind how it is being run now using the funds from the ambulance runs to run the fire department to subsidize the costs of having a paid firefighter on duty. It’s the confidence of knowing that there is somebody in those stations ready to make those responses in a timely fashion,” he said.