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Sonoma County Struggles To Fill Volunteer Firefighter Vacancies

SONOMA (KCBS) - The County of Sonoma is raising a red flag about its dwindling firefighting ranks. Officials hope several dozen people will answer this urgent call to volunteer.

Presently, there are 60 volunteer firefighter vacancies throughout the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department's 15 units. That amounts to one in five positions unfilled.

The need is greatest in the most rural pockets on the region where, perhaps not surprisingly in this economy, many of the locals who could volunteer so close to home are working elsewhere.

"Many people choose to live in the rural areas and then commute out," acknowledged Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Aston. "Some of the staffing challenges that we have in our particular area have to do with the ranch land and farm land."

"Most of us travel long distances to work and we're not working in the communities where we live," he added.

"We're being creative and innovative," Aston said optimistically, "and coming up with a variety of what we call non-resident programs."

KCBS' Margie Shafer Reports:

Even if residency requirements were to be relaxed, Aston recognizes that the time commitment - and lack of generous compensation - prove to be sticking points for many would-be volunteers.

"There's really no difference between what a career firefighter that's on duty 240 hours a month, at a minimum, is expected to know and do, and a volunteer," he acknowledged. "So, it takes a tremendous commitment."

Volunteer firefighters are required to undergo a minimum of 150 hours of basic training.

"It's not just fires," he pointed out. "We respond to hazardous calls and rescues and medical calls and, of course, vegetation fires and structure fires."

"Probably one of our largest call volumes for fires in our area is for vehicle-related fires."

"We look for a minimum of 5 years," Aston was upfront about the commitment expected of a volunteer firefighter. "It's going to take a year to a year-and-a-half to get them and their skills up to where they really need to be."

Sonoma County recently received word that it would receive nearly $275,000 in grant funding from the Dept. of Homeland Security, and Aston hoped to dole it out in the form of modest stipends and financial incentives for training sessions, travel costs and retention awards.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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