McHenry County fire departments seeing shortage of young recruits

SPRING GROVE – McHenry County fire officials – like their counterparts across the country – are having a difficult time finding young recruits to take the place of aging veterans.

“We are struggling to find young recruits, and it’s a difficult situation because the volunteer position is not really what it once was,” Harvard Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Don Davidson said. “People don’t have as much free time as they used to, and ambulance calls have increased over the years.”

Davidson said his department actively recruits within the district, but has had to rely on paramedics outside of the district on occasion to fill some needs.

“We’ve put ourselves in a situation right now if a young person wants to be a career firefighter, we can give them the tools to get partway there early,” Davidson said. “But because of how limited we can be at times, we can be in some trouble if there are two major calls at once.”

Spring Grove Fire Protection District Chief Richard Tobiasz said there’s even more of a need for some of the smaller departments in McHenry County. Tobiasz said the main problems are the already limited pool of candidates and the time it takes to train those who are interested.

“There’s a lot to know and it’s a huge time commitment to become a firefighter,” Tobiasz said. “Anyone off the streets who wants to work as a firefighter or paramedic would need at least two years of training, and being a firefighter has changed a lot in the last 30 years. You need to know hazardous materials, more paramedic training and the changes in building construction and materials.”

Tobiasz also said another problem he sees is that people are seemingly always moving from one place to another.

“We’re kind of the training grounds for people who want to move on in their careers, so sometimes they can’t work for us anymore and we need to replace them,” Tobiasz said.

Since Hebron is such a small town, the Hebron Fire Protection District has a paid on-call program where the volunteers respond from their homes.

“We rely on people coming from their homes and businesses to respond for emergency calls,” Hebron-Alden-Greenwood Fire Protection District Chief Tom Linneman said. “But finding volunteers can be hard especially in today’s world. A lot of our volunteers are younger people who are starting their families out, and family commitment doesn’t allow them to volunteer as often as they may like.

“We used to have a factory in town that probably employed five or six of our volunteers and when there was a call, they were able to help out right away,” Linneman said. “But that’s no longer the case now and a lot of times factories can’t afford to have the employees leave anymore.”

Spring Grove and other fire departments around McHenry County are addressing the need for early training with their explorer programs, which give youth the chance to experience fire and emergency medical services before using hands-on and classroom training. The goal is for participants to get an early taste in what being a firefighter entails.

The Spring Grove program meets on a weekly basis and trains participants in forcible entry, fire extinguisher use, fire ground safety, hose and ladder drills, extrication drills, CPR certification and patient care. It is open to both men and women between the ages of 15 and 21 from Spring Grove and neighboring communities.

“I also just want to say that another way fire services are changing is that there are more women getting involved and they’re every bit as good as the guys,” Tobiasz said.

Richmond Township Fire Protection District and Wonder Lake Fire Protection District also have their own programs to teach high school students about the field.

“We do a lot of training with Spring Grove, Richmond and Hebron,” Wonder Lake Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Mike Weber. “We supervise the trainees and teach them how to use the jaws of life and train them how to use ladders.”

Despite the long hours, Tobiasz and Linneman said they would recommend people pursue the career for the opportunity to help the community and for the challenge.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s certainly rewarding for the some of the things that you do,” Tobiasz said.

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