Answering the call

Fire chiefs look to growing Latino population to rescue the languishing small-town firehouse
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Photos by Matt McClain

Three months into the job, Lupe Avalos still hears from the skeptics.

His twin brother and Latino friends wonder why a 20-year-old man born in Mexico decided to volunteer for one of the oldest, clubbiest small-town traditions — the American firehouse.

“They are like, ‘Oh, you are over there being white again with your firefighter friends,’ ” said Avalos, who was born in Mexico and brought to the United States by his parents when he was 4 years old. “But I like it, and I’m learning a lot of new things by getting involved in the community.”

This town in the center of Oklahoma’s panhandle has seen a huge demographic shift, flipping from majority-white to majority-Hispanic in the span of two decades. It’s a transformation reflected across many parts of America, one that is reshaping core community institutions, including those that provide the most critical services.

The traditional firehouse is feeling particularly pressured as the population of young white men it typically relied on for staffing declines and it struggles to connect with a burgeoning immigrant community. The dynamic has left firehouses short-staffed and Latino communities underserved.

From 1984 through 2015, the number of volunteer firefighters dipped nearly 10 percent to about 815,000, even as calls to fire departments nearly tripled, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Now, community leaders across the country are rethinking firehouse cultures as they try to recruit more first- and second-generation immigrants.

Lupe Avalos, 20, is a volunteer firefighter at the Guymon Fire Department in addition to his job at the local pork plant. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“Communities that need help, they are reaching out to their neighbors, and their neighbors are changing,” said Rob Leonard of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York.

The cultural shift has been fraught at times.

Manny Fonseca, president of the National Association of Hispanic Firefighters, said many departments present uninviting environments for some.

“They start coming in and immediately start hearing their name being called as, ‘Hey, Taco,’ or ‘Hey, Chico,’ ” Fonseca said.

Something as simple as food can become a flash point for controversy in the firehouse, he added.

When a non-Latino firefighter asked what he was eating, “I would say, ‘It’s the lining of the stomach of a cow and a dish we normally eat in South America,’ ” Fonseca recalled. “They would say, ‘Why would you eat that stuff?’ ”

In Guymon, a town known for its cowboys and “Wild West” history, the firehouse has become a center of cultural co-mingling. For the past 15 years, the department has been actively recruiting from the town’s rapidly growing immigrant community. About a third of Guymon’s volunteer firefighters are now Latino.

Avalos, left, rides on a vintage firetruck with full-time firefighter Alan Williams during the Pioneer Days parade on May 5 in Guymon. The department has had success finding volunteer firefighters within the town’s burgeoning Latino community. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Guymon Fire Department Station 1, at sunset. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Riders warm up their horses before competing at Guymon’s annual Pioneer Days. The town is known for its “Wild West” history. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
TOP: Avalos, left, rides on a vintage firetruck with full-time firefighter, Alan Williams, 25, right, during the Pioneer Days parade on May 5 in Guymon. The department has had success finding volunteer firefighters within the town's burgeoning Hispanic community. BOTTOM LEFT: Guymon Fire Department Station 1 is seen at sunset. BOTTOM RIGHT: Riders warm up their horses before competing at Guymon’s annual Pioneer Days on May 4. The town is known for its ‘Wild West’ history.

Even though that falls short of the town’s overall Hispanic representation — 56 percent — the shift has been mutually beneficial, said Chief Dean McFadden. The firehouse has remained fully staffed, and the town’s newest residents are more connected to one of the community’s most critical services.

Max Soto, one of the first Mexican immigrants to become a volunteer firefighter in Guymon, said he and the other Latino recruits at times struggled during training to understand the “nine white instructors from Oklahoma City” who came to lead the sessions.

He ended up passing the course because others at the fire department offered him extra help — a gesture that built trust.

At a recent departmentwide breakfast, Soto sat with his fellow firefighters at a long table in the fire hall. As their colleagues conversed in English, Soto spoke to two other Latino volunteers in Spanish.

“Is this Mexican pride or what?” he said, jokingly, as they ate a staple Southern breakfast of biscuits and gravy.

Jesus Uribe, 29, center, a career firefighter of Mexican descent, takes part in the Pledge of Allegiance as he and others gather at Station 1 before the Pioneer Days parade on May 5. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The firehouse staffing crisis

Ever since Benjamin Franklin founded the nation’s first “bucket brigade” volunteer firehouse in Philadelphia in 1736, the organizations have been fairly homogenous and fraternal.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, volunteer fire department membership was largely dictated by the ethnic and religious makeup of a neighborhood, said Timothy Winkle, curator of firefighting history at the Smithsonian’s Division of Home and Community Life.

“You might have a Catholic-Irish fire company or a Protestant-Irish fire company or even some fire companies started almost exclusively by butchers from the same area,” Winkle said, adding that members often had to vote on whom to accept into their ranks. “Clearly, you had to pull your weight if you were in a company, but you had to fit in well with other members.”

As big cities shifted to paid firefighters, small towns remained largely reliant on volunteer departments, which continued to serve as social and charitable hubs of their communities through parades, dances, fish fries and potluck dinners.

Many volunteer firefighters maintain full-time jobs. When notified of an emergency by pager or the town’s fire siren, they jump into their vehicles and drive to the fire hall or directly to the incident scene.

Some are paid hourly for the time they spend on a call. Guymon volunteers receive about $9 an hour.

But aging populations and other demographic changes have created staffing challenges for many small-town firehouses. In towns with populations of 10,000 residents or fewer, about a quarter of volunteer firefighters are over the age of 50, compared with less than 15 percent 20 years ago, according to NFPA data.

Fire chiefs cite a host of causes for the manpower shortage.

Guymon volunteer firefighters Jay Nunley, center, and Max Soto, right, eat breakfast at Station 1. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

As their towns have lost manufacturing and craftsman jobs, residents’ commutes have gotten longer, leaving less time for volunteer work. Meanwhile, volunteer firefighters must complete more hours of training than they did a few decades ago.

On top of that, being a volunteer firefighter isn’t as exciting as it was back then, chiefs say, because of the growing use of automated fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. As a result, the number of false-alarm calls has tripled nationwide since the 1980s.

“The death of a volunteer fire department is responding to hundreds and hundreds of calls that are likely to be false,” said Rick Balentine, the fire chief in Aspen, Colo., where annual calls for service have jumped from an average of 300 in the 1990s to 1,500 last year.

About 250 miles away, in the eastern exurbs of Denver, the volunteer shortage has become so noticeable that local fire chiefs talk about it in life-or-death terms.

T.J. Steck, chief of the Elizabeth Fire Protection District in Elbert County, Colo., noted that local departments struggled this spring to contain several fast-moving grass fires.

“We are now running into situations with skeleton crews and not able to get all the jobs done,” said Steck, who said he has 50 percent fewer volunteers than he did a decade ago. “A local news channel recently interviewed four chiefs, including myself, and said, ‘If this doesn’t change, do you think people will die?’ All four chiefs raised their hands.”

A rodeo participant warms up a horse as dust kicks up in the setting sun during a Pioneer Days event. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Miss Rodeo Illinois Ivy Weirather, left, laughs as Miss Rodeo Oregon Jessi Cornforth poses with Guymon firefighter Alan Williams. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Guymon firefighters cast shadows as they stand outside the station. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
TOP: A rodeo participant warms up a horse as the setting sun illuminates dust during a Pioneer Days event. BOTTOM LEFT: Miss Rodeo Illinois, Ivy Weirather, left, laughs with Miss Rodeo Oregon, Jessi Cornforth, right, and Guymon firefighter Alan Williams. Volunteer firefighters often help with social and charitable community events. BOTTOM RIGHT: Guymon firefighters cast shadows as they stand outside the station. The firehouse has made efforts to diversify its ranks.

Recruiting bomberos

In response to that risk, national firefighter organizations and the U.S. Fire Administration have begun urging volunteer-based departments to be more aggressive in reaching out to immigrant communities.

“Instead of the good ol’ boys club, we have to change the branding of your local fire department,” said Kevin Quinn, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).

There is no reliable census of the demographic makeup of the nation’s volunteer firefighters, who compose about 70 percent of the municipal firefighting force. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 8 percent of career firefighters are Hispanic.

By comparison, Latino residents account for about 18 percent of the U.S. population.

Like many prairie towns, Guymon struggled throughout the 20th century to retain residents and jobs. Besides the railroad track that slices through town, one of its most enduring symbols is Bob’s Cowboy Bar, which bills itself as the second bar to open in Oklahoma after it ended Prohibition.

The town’s future brightened in the mid-1990s when the Seaboard Corporation opened a major pork plant there. The facility processes more than 20,000 pigs a day and has a workforce of 2,500, many of them immigrants from Latin America.

The population nearly doubled between 1990 and 2016 to about 12,000. But the fire department’s staffing remained stagnant, and it struggled to build a relationship with the growing Latino community.

Local officials learned that some immigrants could not distinguish between firefighters and border control and immigration agents. Recognizing that the Guymon fire department had become disconnected from a sizable part of the community it was supposed to serve, leaders began trying to adjust the department’s culture to include more Latino residents.

Guymon’s white and Latino residents — primarily immigrant families from Mexico and Central-American countries — largely live separately, though they come together for large community events such as the annual Pioneer Days Rodeo and in the town’s Main Street commercial corridor.

Melyn Johnson, director of the Main Street Guymon civic organization, said she helped organize a meeting between members of the immigrant community and fire department leaders years ago.

Some asked the fire department officials if they would contact the federal immigration service if undocumented residents called for help.

“They responded, ‘No, it’s not our job to check papers,’ ” Johnson recalled. “ ‘It’s our job to put out fires.’ ”

The language barrier created another hurdle. So after the meeting, some firefighters stitched “bomberos” — “firefighters” in Spanish — on their uniforms.

But leaders recognize that bridging the divide also requires diversifying the firehouse’s ranks.

Guymon firefighters Alan Williams, left, Dennis Dudley and Lupe Avalos clean a vintage firetruck. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Jesus Uribe, a career firefighter in Guymon of Mexican descent, recalls when a Hispanic neighbor knocked on his door late one September night.

“Can you come help? My wife died,” the man said.

Uribe rushed next door and discovered the woman had suffered an apparent heart attack hours earlier. Her four children — two of whom were teenagers with cellphones — had been home at the time but never called for help. They worried it would trigger a response from immigration officials, Uribe said.

“He came to me,” said Uribe, 29, “but only because . . . if someone found his wife dead at his house, he feared he was going to get deported and all of his kids were going to be in the system.”

While gaining trust in the immigrant community remains a work in progress, there is evidence of growing mutual benefit.

The fire department now has about 25 volunteers and 20 paid firefighters, which McFadden, the fire chief, considers to be a full complement.

“We have been really lucky that our Hispanic population is big enough to help us bridge this gap,” McFadden said.

“We are showing them we are here to help the community, and if we do that together, it’s going to help all of us,” he said.

For some of the Latino volunteers, the firehouse has offered a path to greater community involvement as they seek residency or citizenship status.

Max Soto was one of the first Hispanic residents to become a volunteer firefighter in Guymon. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Soto, who crossed the Mexican border illegally in 1984 when he was 22, said he joined the firehouse after years of shuffling between farm jobs — milking cows in Louisiana, picking peaches in Arkansas and feeding cows in Kansas.

He now works as a municipal garbage hauler and obtained U.S. citizenship a few years after he became a volunteer firefighter. While he said he faces some bias, his connection to the firehouse helps him feel more a part of the larger community.

“Sometimes, when I see someone needs help on the highway, I go help them but feel sad when they look at me and say, ‘Oh who is the Mexican trying to help me? I don’t need your help,’ ” Soto said. “But when I go out as a firefighter, we all come together — Mexicans, Americans — and I don’t feel like that.”

Soto and his wife, Griselda Soto, in their home on May 3. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Avalos, who has a green card, worries the nation’s testy immigration debate could make Latinos less willing to get involved in the community, including the fire department.

“It’s hard to get people involved because people are scared,” said Avalos, who works in the pork plant’s maintenance department.

When he’s not at his job, Avalos hangs around the firehouse, even though Guymon’s volume of emergency calls can be sparse.

One day in early May, the firehouse received only one emergency call — six firefighters were dispatched to help an obese woman move from one chair to another inside her home. So Avalos spent much of his day polishing the department’s 100-year-old American LaFrance firetruck — the city’s first non-horse-powered piece of fire equipment — so that it could be used in Guymon’s annual Pioneer Days parade.

The next night, Avalos joined other firefighters directing vehicles into the gravel parking lot at Guymon’s annual rodeo.

As he worked under the Oklahoma panhandle’s blazing evening sun, Avalos said he hopes his service as a volunteer firefighter helps prove his commitment to the community and achieve his next goal: “I want to get my citizenship.”

Guymon Fire Department captain Corey Connor walks through Station 1. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)



Credits: Story by Tim Craig. Photos by Matt McClain. Designed by Jason Bernert. Photo Editing by Karly Domb Sadof.