Backwoods Home Magazine

Women play a key role when it comes to making this rural volunteer fire department a success

Women play a key role when it comes to making this rural volunteer fire department a success

By Carole Perlick


Issue #45 • May/June, 1997

For some people, one of the “problems” of living in the country is the remoteness from emergency services, such as fire and rescue, a hospital emergency room, or the family doctor. This problem can be especially troublesome for older people because they run a greater risk of a health emergency. Whether old or young, a house fire can become an even more dangerous event if there is no one around you can call on to help battle it.

Many rural communities handle this problem by starting a volunteer fire department and recruiting area residents to man—or woman—it for free. That’s what we did in our remote community of Copco Lake, near the California/Oregon border, where we have about 50 year-round families—many of them older couples—living on this five-mile-long lake and in the surrounding mountains.

We expanded our own fire house (we actually have two, at opposite ends of the lake), acquired our own equipment, and train our own volunteers to respond to an emergency, whether medical or fire. To finance the fire department, we get some money from our local county government because we formed ourselves into a special service district, but we also raise money ourselves through a variety of fundraisers.

VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS—Carole Perlick, Sue Tickle, and Fran Mahon (left to right) are all Emergency Medical Technicians at the Copco Lake Volunteer Fire Department. Perlick and Tickle are also nurses. (Bob Perlick photo)

Although most people think of men as the primary players in a rural volunteer fire department, at Copco Lake women have formed a valuable partnership with the men and play a key role as volunteers, especially when it comes to responding to medical emergencies, which comprise more than 90% of our calls here.

The Copco Lake Volunteer Fire Department now has seventeen firefighters, ranging in age from 24 to 75, two old fire engines (33 years old and 44 years old), one water tender, and one ambulance, which is really an old donated van we converted to an emergency response vehicle. Some of our firefighters have been trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and several of the lady firefighters are nurses as well as EMTs. We also have the Copco Lake Fire Auxiliary, consisting of women, to raise funds.

The volunteers train together one Saturday a month, doing everything from climbing ladders to the second story of a house to giving oxygen in a simulated medical emergency.

Recently we trained ourselves in the use of SCBAs (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus), and shortly after the training several of the men firefighters had to don the SCBAs and enter a neighbor’s burning home to battle the fire. The neighbor’s cat died in the blaze, but we saved half the house, including the neighbor’s most treasured possessions. As the firefighter nurses tended to the medical needs of the occupant of the house (he was asthmatic), I remember watching our chief, Murrel Wigington, come out of that smoke-filled house with his air tank alarm ringing signaling that he was nearly out of air. I was afraid for him because it was obvious that this 69-year-old man was tired, and I was afraid for the other firefighters who were still inside. It was a proud moment for our department, and a testament of how well prepared we were.

When the siren sounds

Copco Lake is fortunate because among our seventeen volunteers, three are EMTs and three of the women are nurses, assuring that someone pretty well trained in medical response is always home when the fire house siren wails across the lake.

Scott Kimball of Kimball Construction Company volunteered his crew to pour the foundation during the expansion of the fire station.

The typical emergency goes like this: Someone asking for assistance telephones 911, which alerts the California Department of Forestry (CDF) office in Yreka, 35 miles from the lake. CDF ascertains the location of the victim, and, if it’s in our “response area,” triggers our fire house siren and the beepers most of the volunteers carry. The volunteers race to the fire house, determine what the call is (fire or medical), don the appropriate gear, and roll in either the fire engines or emergency response vehicle, or both. We often get to the emergency scene within minutes, unless we are primarily responding in the 40-year-old fire engines.

They are much slower.

We have had two house fires in the past year, one car accident, and numerous medical emergencies. The fires have been the most dangerous. At both we encountered potential fuel explosion dangers, one diesel and one gasoline, and power line hazards. Both served as valuable training lessons in our subsequent debriefing sessions. Our first concern at fires is the safety of the volunteers; a house can be rebuilt, but a volunteer’s life cannot.

Medical emergencies

But the fire house siren sounds most often for medical emergencies. Sometimes it’s an older neighbor who has fallen, sometimes a younger one who has had a shortness of breath and his wife got a little scared, and sometimes it’s the newspaper delivery boy (yes, even way out here we have a delivery boy) who has driven his car off one of the many steep embankments in this community.

Our response to these emergencies is often just in our makeshift ambulance, donning our rubber medical gloves as we race to the scene. The call might involve the taking of blood pressure and other vital signs, administering oxygen, and stabilizing a patient’s neck in a cervical collar if there is the slightest indication of a neck or back injury. An ambulance from town is automatically dispatched on our medical calls through the “911 operator.” It takes about 45 minutes for it to get to the scene.

Ali Popeyus puts the finishing touches on the fire house expansion.

We often have to assure the victim and their family that it is not a life-threatening situation. It can be a little nerve-wracking at times, but the people we serve and serve with make it worthwhile.

A community effort

So how do you get started with your own volunteer fire department? Everyone probably does it differently, but here are some of the things that happened here.

Many of the homes in this community were built as part of a developer’s dream to make some big money by turning the lake into a resort area. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for those who live here, the resort idea never took hold, but we inherited two small one-engine fire houses he had built at opposite ends of the lake.

Because our fire department is partly supported by local taxes, the law required that a board of directors be formed to set policy and to handle financial responsibilities, so in 1970 the Copco Lake Fire Protection Board was formed. The board has five volunteer members. I am the current secretary on the board and am one of three firefighters who also serve on the board.

CDF donated our two fire engines in 1967, and a friend of one of the firefighters donated our emergency response vehicle in 1995.

The completed fire station

We also purchased an old water tender from CDF. The 4500-gallon tender was too big for our fire houses (besides they already had engines in them), so we decided to expand the primary fire station.

Nearly every available person on the lake—about 25 at the time—became involved in building the addition. Some could only give an hour or so, others a full week and more. Churchill Lumber, our local lumber yard, gave us a good discount on the lumber, and they donated the windows.

It took 3 months of community labor. The men did most of the building, but the ladies helped paint the inside and outside of the building, and they kept the coffee pot brewing. It was truly a group endeavor.

The Fire Auxiliary

The Copco Lake Fire Auxiliary is an important part of our volunteer fire department’s efforts. Since we get a limited number of funds from our local county, and since we have to comply with all sorts of government-mandated programs, procedures, inspections, and insurance, we always need money. Not only do we provide service to our district, but we have a mutual aid agreement to help other parts of the county, and we also work with the California Department of Forestry as a back-up force for major fires.

So the Auxiliary holds fund raisers to help maintain the two fire stations and equipment. They also provide drinks and food to the firefighters at the scene of a fire. In one recent house fire, during which we had to contend with 30-foot high flames, a potentially live electrical wire laying across the main fire fighting area, and a loaded kerosene tank that belched flames like a dragon, many of us became very hot and tired. Then along came the Auxiliary with sodas, coffee, and snacks served on the tailgate of a pickup truck. What a welcome sight they were.

Paula Wigington, left, and Judy Finses practice giving oxygen and taking vital signs on Carole Perlick during monthly training.

The rewards and lessons

Prior to the formation of our volunteer department, the old timers say they remember all the neighbors literally forming water bucket brigades to try to save someone’s home. Our firefighters have made a big difference, not just for the community but for the volunteers too. There’s a lot of satisfaction when you help someone.

Like many of the other volunteers, a neighbor recruited me into the fire department. I was 55 at the time, but age is no barrier to being a volunteer. I agreed reluctantly but am now proud to be one of three nurses—all female—the department has.

And I have to admit that I was quite thrilled when I was given my official fire fighting uniform complete with helmet. I looked like a chubby, yellow big bird from Sesame Street, but the grandkids were impressed and so was my mother.

At the time there were only two other women on the department with me, and we were expected to turn out on a regular basis for monthly training. My youngest daughter, Sue, is a fire fighter-paramedic for the Crest Forest Fire Department, located in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California, 700 miles away.

While we were discussing my first fire training session, she told me she always wore a tee shirt and shorts under her uniform, because she was the only woman in the department and was not always able to dress in private during an emergency. So when I reported for my first drill, I slipped my uniform over some shorts and a tee shirt.

I was made to sit in the back of the fire truck as we sped off on a practice grass fire. Bud Johnson, the driver of the truck, bumped us along dirt roads and under massive oak trees. Phil Reynolds, who sat next to me, suddenly asked if I was okay. I said of course, what was the matter? He told me that a large limb from an oak tree had fallen on my head. I was wearing my new yellow helmet and hadn’t felt a thing. This wasn’t such a bad adventure after all.

tanding in front of the emergency response vehicle are, from left, Phil Reynolds, Sue Tickle, Paula Wigington, and Chief Murrel Wigington (Frank Tickle photo).

But then I started to get itchy. My neck was itchy, then my back was itchy, and it just started to spread. Phil said I had a few ants on my collar and brushed them off, but by the time we arrived at the practice sight, I was going crazy. I jumped off the back of the truck and quickly took off my uniform. The men around me were amazed and asked if I always took off my clothes when I joined a new group. Thank heavens for Sue’s advice; I wasn’t standing there in my underwear. Some volunteers actually offered to brush the ants off my chest.

Thus was my introduction to the boys on the department.

Since that time I have completed an EMT course, and even with my nursing background I had a lot to learn. Being an Emergency Medical Technician is far different than working in a controlled hospital situation. The EMT program involves at least 110 hours of instruction plus clinical experience that includes eight hours of ambulance service, eight hours in a hospital emergency room, and eight hours in learning car extrication techniques.

We have responded to emergencies at all times of the day and night and during the different seasons. We have been called out to help with wild land grass fires, where we worked side by side with convict crews from a prison honor farm. On a lovely summer day, we were called to a rancher’s old farm house which went up in flames in what seemed only minutes. All we could do was protect the surrounding dry hillside from catching fire. No lives were lost, but a lifetime of antiques—and the family dog—were destroyed.

There have been medical calls which took numerous twists. A confused older gentleman refused to let us examine his elderly wife after she had suffered a slight stroke. We finally persuaded him.

In another call, an elderly woman walking to her mailbox twisted her foot and broke her leg in two places. She sat in the road for an hour before someone came by and called us for help.

Living on a lake, we have seen boating accidents, such as the time a young man was killed by a boat propeller that hit him in the back of the head while he was in the water. There was nothing we could do. We have been able to save some lives and were unable to save a few.

Why some volunteer

Different reasons bring people to volunteer as fire fighters. It certainly isn’t the pay, and the hours are terrible since we are on call all the time—rain, snow, or shine. During one of our monthly training sessions, I asked some of the other women why they had joined the department.

Judy Finses, left, and Pam Morford train with a SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus)

Paula Wigington, age 62, has been on our fire department since 1983 and finished her EMT training four years ago. The area we live in is so isolated that she felt we needed to be able to rely on one another, that we needed the proper training in fire fighting and emergency medical care that could only be achieved on an organized basis. Due to some health problems she can no longer actively “fight” fires, but she is much depended on for her ability to see potential dangers for the other firefighters.

Fran Mahon, age 52, moved to our area three years ago from the big city where she had worked as an artist and x-ray technician. Having passed various accidents in the past, she felt incapable of being of service to those who needed help, so she joined to help her community, and became an EMT two years ago. Now she feels more prepared. She is also adept at keeping the pumps on our older fire trucks working when we are in a fire situation and water is our primary tool. We were all sorry to see her move away from the community last year.

Sue Tickle, age 37, having moved back to the country with her two sons five years ago, was interested in joining the fire department and begged her father, who was then the fire chief, to let her join. The chief was trying to recruit younger firefighters, and in 1992 there were no EMTs in our community, so he let her join if she promised to become an EMT. The medical calls became so interesting to her that she returned to school and became a registered nurse.

Some of the volunteers pose with the
water tanker (Frank Tickle photo).

Judy Finses, age 52, and her husband, Jim, moved to the area last year and both of them joined the fire department. Judy, a registered nurse, said they joined to be part of their new community and meet their neighbors. They soon realized that it was much more involved. The fire department became a real commitment to learn emergency care and the different aspects of firefighting. Judy said the feeling of comradeship and quick friendship came as a surprise. She also feels physically and mentally tested, and that if someone had told her that she would be talked into climbing a ladder, hooking a leg around a ladder rung, and hanging loose in the air waving her arms off the roof of a garage, she would have told them they were crazy. But she did it with the rest of us during a training session, and she says it’s a real rush being part of the 911 calls.

Pam Morford, age 41, recently moved to the lake. She kept hearing the fire siren going off, and she decided she wanted to be able to help out so she joined the department.

I joined because I was the only nurse on the lake at the time, and I felt guilty not offering my services. It turned out to be one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life.

If you’d like to join your local volunteer fire department and get in on the thrill, all you usually have to do is go down and volunteer. Volunteer fire departments are always looking for warm bodies to train. No previous experience is necessary, just a willingness to help your community, get dirty, and do some hard work. And it is a rush; I can attest to that. It’ll be one of the most rewarding—and sometimes challenging—jobs you’ve ever had.