Chester resident and Fire Capt. Chris Dean has been on the frontlines fighting fires and answering emergency calls for over 20 years, first as a volunteer firefighter, then working his way up to fire captain for the Chester Fire Department, a position he’s held since 2000.
“Right after I got out of the Navy in 1997, I started as a volunteer firefighter,” Dean recalled. “It was something that I always wanted to do — and was the reason I went into the Navy in the first place.”
Dean said he was offered training fighting fires aboard ship, as well as training in diesel mechanics, “which I knew would be handy working on fire trucks.”
He figured that the knowledge he received in the Navy would suit him well once he applied to be a local volunteer at Chester Fire, because “fire fighting was ultimately what I wanted to do in life; it was my dream job ever since I was a kid ”
It wasn’t an uncomplicated choice for Dean. Even as a volunteer, he said he still had to work full time at a local manufacturing company in town, which meant being on call even during work hours.
“As a volunteer, one goes on calls if it’s possible — but they’re not obligated to do so if their employer doesn’t allow them to leave or if other factors prevent them from responding, such as family commitments, for instance.”
Later, Dean was employed with the Chester Public Utilities District as a maintenance worker and meter reader for about five years. During his time at CPUD, he was fortunate in that the agency allowed him to leave work whenever it was necessary to fight a fire.
“During that time I got my EMT certificate,” he recounted, and eventually was promoted lieutenant — still in the volunteer ranks — in 1999.
Dean’s devotion to his trade earned him a promotion to the position of a volunteer fire captain, and in 2002 became a fulltime, paid staff member.
The need for volunteer fire fighters is reaching a critical period, Dean asserted. Approximately 70 percent of all firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers.
“The recruitment and retention of volunteers in the Almanor Basin, which has been declining for several years, is an ongoing problem,” he said, with a diminishing number of younger volunteers who are willing and able to offer their time and energy.
In fact, the entire region has undergone significant demographic changes, with a gradual reduction in the number of potential emergency personnel due to an aging citizenry and other factors.
What’s expected from volunteers once they apply?
Those wishing to become volunteers can begin their training at the firehouse starting anytime of the year, Dean said, which consists of the basics in first aid and CPR, working toward a California State Certified Firefighter 1 certificate.
Training takes place on “drill night” on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. and again on Saturdays at 10 a.m. at the Chester fire station, located in the back of the CPUD building.
“There is flexibility since we know some people may work certain shifts and can’t make it to the trainings on particular days.”
Dean noted that before volunteers are ready to go into the field, they have to be a member of the department for at least 30 calendar days and attend a minimum of three drill-training days, which will give trainees a basic knowledge of how to react safely when they respond to calls.
But volunteers should expect at least six months of experience before they’re fully functional in the field, such as entering a burning building or using the Jaws of Life, a hydraulic rescue tool used by emergency personnel to assist in vehicle extrication of crash victims.
Volunteers also learn to quickly put on their fire-resistant turnouts and the use of an array of equipment, along with how to correctly use breathing apparatus devices while working in smoke-filled environments like wild fires. Lessons are given on using the radio as well.
Fire personnel also utilize a “burn trailer” located outside the fire station where fires are lit and trainees learn the best way to put it out in a controlled environment.
Comprehensive instruction is given to fight all types of fires, including structure fires, dumpster fires and wild fires. “If it’s on fire, we put it out,” he said
Once volunteers have completed their basic training, they are ready to assist in the field, said Dean, “where they are paired either with a more experienced volunteer firefighter or shadow a paid staff member.
Training is ongoing and continues indefinitely, he said, adding that, “To this day I still keep training. … The fire service is ever-evolving, introducing better, safer ways of doing business.”
He continued, “I always tell people, the day you decide you’ve had enough training is the day you need to quit.”
Dean said that volunteers could expect to find that most emergency calls are not fire related, but rather medical situations.
Volunteers have the opportunity to complete an advanced emergency medical technician course as part of their training to become EMT certified that allows them to work on a patient having a heart attack, for example, or suffering from other serious ailments.
“A lot of times we just need volunteers to help lift patients onto a gurney and into the ambulance, for instance, or move fire equipment around like fire hoses at a fire scene, in addition to carrying various pieces of gear, and keeping the vehicles clean and other duties.”
Over the course of several months to a year, volunteers who show an interest in learning to drive emergency vehicles, including fire engines and water tenders, must earn a Class B or a California Firefighters Class C permit, which is specific to operating fire vehicles.
Volunteer ambulance drivers are trained in-house as well, and receive a special endorsement from the DMV once they’ve met all the necessary qualifications.
After their initial training period, volunteer firefighters are given pagers to notify them when a fire breaks out, and receive a message on their cell phone when the department needs them to respond by first going to the firehouse, although in some cases they can drive their own car to the scene of the fire or other emergency.
“Volunteers need to know that we understand that his or her family and work come first — we’re not putting food on the table — so they assist when they can.”
Dean said he is disinclined to limit the age of those who wish to volunteer, but between 18 and 55 is an ideal age range.
“Honestly, there’s always something that needs to be done, so we can use people who may not be physically able to fight a fire, but can still assist in so many other ways such as managing a staging area and in other tasks, even if they are in their 60s, if they are reasonably healthy,” Dean noted.
Volunteers can decide if they want to participate or not at any time, but they are paid whenever fires are located outside the county line.
“We have gone to incidents beyond our immediate area throughout the state of California or outside the state on calls that may require a number of days in the field,” he said.
CFD volunteers also assist other fire districts as part of mutual aid agreements between fire departments.
Dean mentioned that they offer a Junior Firefighter program that is open to anyone 16 years old, but they must have a valid California driver’s license and parental consent.
Junior firefighters ride along on calls, but are prevented from being in a dangerous situation such as inside a burning building. Nevertheless, they can be on the outside of a building spraying water on the fire or perform life-saving CPR — after extensive training of course.
Junior firefighters receive the same training as all the other firefighters, Dean noted, “and hopefully once they reach the age of 18 they’re ready to fight fires” on a regular basis during fire season like the more experienced veterans.
Volunteering is a good way to get into the fire service and turn your experience into a career, Dean pointed out, adding that the CFD pays for fire-related classes at Lassen College or the cost of attending the Quincy Fire Academy.
Dean said volunteers should come prepared to learn, exhibit good moral character and especially have a dedication to serve the community.
Volunteers work hard to protect the public when fires break out, sometimes having to get out of bed in the middle of the night or interrupt their personal time to fight fires, and without compensation.
“We need people with a strong desire to help others in times of crisis,” Dean insisted. “That’s what we’re here for — to rescue people during their worst hour.”
For information on volunteering, call Capt. Chris Dean at 258-3456.