Rurally Speaking—Do You Ever Feel Like an Island?

Carl J. Haddon

Do you ever get the feeling that those who make the “rules, regulations, and standards” for the fire service have no idea what it’s like to be a rural fire department? We fight, bite, and scratch to afford needed equipment and become compliant, only to fall short financially or have the standards change. We often watch “required” equipment die from lack of use. We laugh in frustration when we hear phrases such as “additional resources” because we know that additional resources are at least a couple of hours away—if they are available at all. I don’t know about you, but throughout my tenure with a rural department, I have often felt as though we are an island that the rest of the world doesn’t really understand.

This summer, I had an opportunity to offer some training, and do some emergency preparedness planning in a part of the United States that many people don’t even know exist. A 14-hour flight, and many different time zones later, I landed in the United States Territory of Saipan or Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands (CNMI). For those who don’t know, Saipan is one of the Northern Marianna Islands in the South Pacific. It became a United States Territory/Protectorate at the end of World War II. Saipan and neighboring islands are steeped in history, and I encourage you to research them.

Not knowing quite what to expect, my fellow instructors and I were quite surprised to find a tropical island that was a mix of modern and World War II throwback. The island of Saipan is 14 miles long, and a couple of miles wide. The predominant language is English, and the currency is the U.nited States dollar. Saipan has one main road that circumnavigates the island for its population of fewer than 50,000 residents. The aforementioned description of the island also describes the local fire department’s response area.

Sitting down to speak with the CNMI fire chief and his firefighters was an experience I will not soon forget. The guys on the job in Saipan were all very professional, young, and enthusiastic firefighters with a passion for what they do. As we spoke, and they showed me their facilities and apparatus, I realized a shocking commonality with my rural department back at home. This realization allowed me to relate with the guys in Saipan on a level that I was very familiar with.

Although there were obviously many stark differences between a tropical paradise fire department and a Rocky Mountain paradise fire department, we both were “islands” in our own way. CNMI Fire writes grants for everything under the sun just like we do. Unlike us, they do get some help from a couple of federal agencies due in part to the United States military presence and the shipping port on the island. The chief explained, as he showed us its new fire/rescue boat, that although the department got some help from these agencies in the way of things like a new fire boat, they do not provide any of the training. The chief went on to tell us that the cost of training is very expensive in Saipan, as local resources for training are limited, and the cost of bringing in instructors from the outside or sending crews off the island for training is cost prohibitive. Sound familiar?

He brought us to one of his firehouses, where we found a relatively new rescue truck parked in the front yard of the station. When I asked about it, the chief told me that they got the rescue a couple of years ago but don’t have room to house it. As a result, the rescue lives out in the weather and the salt air. One of our guys asked if the department has any ladder trucks or aerials to deal with the midrise buildings on the island. The chief told us that they used to have one, but that it “rotted in the station” and there was no money for a replacement. Things such as access to factory authorized apparatus repair facilities and parts availability were also challenges that we had in common.

As our trip progressed and I got down to the emergency preparedness planning updates that were part of our assignment, I again realized the similarities between our “islands.” When dealing with the subject of outside resources, both the fire chief and the administrator couldn’t help but laugh. Outside resources for Saipan come from neighboring islands either by boat or by air. Typhoons are the islands biggest weather challenge, and when typhoons hit, there are no boats and no planes to bring in outside resources. As a result, additional help is often hours or even days away. We shared about the similar challenges such as those created by monster snow storms back at home, and how even though we were on the mainland, help for a rural fire department is often slow in coming to our location. The folks we met with also sheepishly told us how they felt that they didn’t fit into the “NFPA Standards box” and how they work hard to be compliant but know that the “nature of their beast and their budget” makes that task more than difficult.

On the long flight back home, I reflected on just how many similarities exist between my rural department in Idaho, and CNMI Fire, some 9,000 miles away. Through sharing our shortcomings and successes with each other, we had some laughs and great brotherhood with the firefighters and officers in Saipan. We both came to the conclusion that we are indeed “islands” in our own rights, and that 9,000 miles, ocean, and time zones, don’t change the daily challenges faced by rural departments today.

is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He serves as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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