A home went up in flames Jan. 28 in Stoney Brook Township, yet when the call was dispatched to volunteer fire departments, no one answered.

The house was the third in the area to be declared a "total loss" since July.

When no response came from the Culver and Arrowhead fire departments, eight to 10 minutes later, the dispatcher sent a call the Industrial Volunteer Fire Department and the Cloquet Area Fire District. Both departments answered the call, but by that time, there was little that could be done to save the house.

The number of area houses destroyed by fire has shined a spotlight on a dual problem facing fire departments, particularly in rural or sparsely populated areas of the region. The geography and lack of residents pose one challenge, but a second and more concerning problem is the decline of volunteer firefighters, according to CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder.

At least eight years ago, the number of volunteers in rural areas began collapsing, Schroeder said, but communities are just beginning to see a service impact. Small departments like Culver and Arrowhead simply don't have enough staff to respond to every call, and the problem isn't specific to rural Carlton or St. Louis counties. It extends to much of greater Minnesota and the nation at-large.

"There are vast areas of the state where if people call 911, there is no guarantee someone is coming in a timely fashion," Schroeder said.

Response times for the CAFD within its assigned coverage area - including the cities of Cloquet and Scanlon, as well as the Perch Lake and Brevator districts - average around six minutes, according to Schroeder. That time drops to four minutes within the city of Cloquet, but increases to a range of 10-15 minutes when they are called to assist other districts. Add to that time the eight to 10 minutes waiting for the primary responders, and response times to rural areas begin to approach 20-25 minutes.

"That's time you can't get back," Schroeder said.

In the case of the Jan. 28 fire, a prompt response time would probably not have made much difference. Very few people live nearby and, as a result of the extreme cold that day, even less were outdoors. The blaze was only called in after a neighbor saw flames through the roof of the house. No one was home at the time of the fire.

A fourth fire destroyed a garage Jan. 31 in Brookston. Located on the Fond du Lac Reservation, Brookston is served by the CAFD. While the response time was adequate in the Jan. 31 fire, the blaze was out of control by the time responders arrived, Schroeder said.

The rural nature of that area of Carlton and St. Louis counties only compounds the problem of declining volunteer numbers for smaller departments that protect communities throughout Carlton County.

Schroeder said he doesn't believe there are any more fires in that area than other places, especially at this time of year when overworked heating systems are the cause of most infernos. The problem is the increased response time allows the fires to intensify before responders arrive on the scene.

Availability, pay impacts recruitment

The Cloquet Area Fire District and Carlton Fire Department  responded to a house fire in December. Photo courtesy of CAFD
The Cloquet Area Fire District and Carlton Fire Department responded to a house fire in December. Photo courtesy of CAFD
Schroeder, who has been a firefighter in Cloquet for nearly 30 years, believes the problems with declining volunteers has to do with the changing workforce in the area.

"The days when everyone farmed and were around to respond to calls are gone," Schroeder said. "Most employers nowadays don't allow people to respond to calls."

The CAFD covers a population of approximately 22,000 and is a "combination department," meaning it has a mix of full-time staff and "paid on-call" volunteers.

The 35 volunteers are "paid on-call," meaning they are compensated for the time they spend responding to calls and during training. Schroeder said the compensation provides mostly for gas money to travel to calls and child care during training sessions.

However, the vast majority of fire departments in Carlton County have little or no paid staff. In fact, of the 775 departments in Minnesota, only 19 are fully staffed by career firefighters, according to Minnesota State Fire Marshal Bruce West.

"It's a challenge and a concern all across the state of Minnesota and the nation," West said.

There have been a number of strategies tried to help with the declining number of volunteers, with varying degrees of success.

In St. Louis County, there is a "box alarm" system, where three or four departments are paged in the event of a structure fire, Schroeder said. In Carlton County, some departments are employing a similar strategy on a more informal basis. The Carlton, Thomson Township and Wrenshall departments have an "automatic aid agreement" in which all three departments are paged in the event of a structure fire in one of their districts.

In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature authorized a three-year pilot program to provide a $500 yearly stipend for volunteer emergency responders. The hope was to increase the retention and recruitment of volunteers.

Four fire departments responded to the fire at Minetties Roadside Diner in Wright on Jan. 30. Submitted photo
Four fire departments responded to the fire at Minetties Roadside Diner in Wright on Jan. 30. Submitted photo
A 2017 report by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and Minnesota State Fire Marshal concluded that people don't join fire departments for financial reasons and most often resign because they move or have increased personal commitments. The program was not renewed after the pilot program.

"Money is not the motivating factor," Schroeder said of the stipend program. "It's the time commitment and time availability of people these days."

What's more, the study said the $500 stipend was not enough money to prevent volunteers from moving or changing jobs or to compensate them for the training and licensure requirements.

Volunteer firefighter certification requires three courses and 144 hours of training time, according to West. The fire courses include a "live burn" in which an abandoned house is set on fire and students must extinguish the flames.

"It can be a tremendous amount of time that a new recruit is going to have to put forward toward that community he's volunteering for," West said. "Training requirements today are much different today that they were 10 years ago or 30 years ago. That's another demand on that person's time. It's a struggle to juggle all those balls that person might be throwing up in the air."

Carlton department bucks trend

Carlton Fire Department Chief Derek Wolf said the numbers for his department - 44 active members - are pretty good. Carlton has a some advantages, though. The Carlton Firefighters Cadet program, which partners with Carlton High School, helps train students while they're still in high school. Many transition into careers in fire or emergency services, Wolf said.

In addition, the department also operates an ambulance service, which draws in medical students looking to fill hours for classes. He said some of these students choose to stay on when their coursework is finished and end up living in Carlton and remaining involved as volunteers.

The Carlton also actively recruits new members. Last year, the department went door-to-door seeking new members and annually hosts an open house during the Carlton Daze festival each summer.

It's not easy, Wolf said, but it's a necessary part of running a small department.

"You can't just assume people are going to walk through your door," he said.

West said Carlton's cadet program is similar to the Firefighter Explorer Program being used by other departments around the country. The Explorer program - and extension of the Boy Scouts of America - is a program for young men and women to gain experience and training as a firefighter. Ages requirements vary by department but can include people as young as 14 up to 21 years old.

"That's the future of the fire service," West said. "Getting young people within the community who are thinking, 'Maybe I want to be a firefighter someday,' so they are joining the Explorer post and they are actually going through some of the training that it takes to be a firefighter."