Ryan Erwin faced a slew of problems when he became fire chief of Milford Volunteer Fire Department in 2018. One problem had for years placed firefighters' lives at risk.
“When I came on, my priority first was to get all their PPE up to date and kept up to date,” Erwin said about personal protective equipment like turnout gear. “I need my firefighters to be safe to be able to do the job. I need them to have confidence in the clothing they’re wearing, and in the gear they have, to be able to do the job right, and to know that they’ll be protected by it.”
Among the 300 codes and standards issued by the National Fire Protection Association is NFPA 1851. Titled, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, NFPA 1851 states that personal protective equipment “must be retired from service no more than 10 years from the date the ensemble or ensemble component was manufactured.”
“Some of the stuff I had was dated 2003, 2007 — expired or beyond expired — and it needed to be updated,” said Erwin, whose full-time duties are with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Milford recorded 206 residents in the last census count. The rural community in Lassen County, Calif., butts up against the Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada to the West and Honey Lake to the East, sliced in half by U.S. Highway 395. Its population is smaller than the enrollment at a typical American high school.
The department operates on a modest budget which this fiscal year increased slightly over $64,000. Erwin said the department received about sixteen thousand dollars in revenue from the annual tax assessment.
“With our budget, you kinda make do with what you got, and we have been doing that for years,” explained Assistant Chief Pat McMullen, who began volunteering in 2007.
Milford’s nine volunteers are responsible for 220 square miles and an estimated 2,250 residents. The department responds primarily to medical emergencies and wildland fires and traffic collisions on U.S. Highway 395, the main artery into Reno. Like its peers elsewhere in Lassen County, Milford relies on mutual aid agreements with nearby fire departments.
Depending on the size of its tax base, replacing turnout gear and other forms of PPE can be an uncomfortable expense for volunteer fire departments. On the low end, a single set of turnout gear costs upwards of three thousand dollars. When Erwin joined the department, wildland firefighting gear and PPE both needed immediate replacing. And in some cases, that meant purchasing two sets of turnout gear for each firefighter. With a projected cost well over $20,000, a third of Milford’s budget, Erwin looked elsewhere for funding.
In 2019, Milford VFD received a grant from the Gary Sinise Foundation First Responder’s Outreach program to purchase new wildland PPE and dual-purpose tools. The department last year received a second grant to replace its aging communications equipment.
“Having gear that is lightweight, fits comfortably, makes all the difference in the world when you’re carrying a sixty-five-pound pack up the side of the mountain that’s on fire,” said McMullen, who's a firefighter with the Sierra Army Depot in Herlong.
“Most of our guys are not current firemen. We’ve got painters, construction workers, and prison guards and mechanics, so they’re not used to wearing this type of PPE all day long,” he said. “And when you can get the more comfortable PPE, I can get somebody who doesn’t do this all the time to wear the PPE, and it’s comfortable for them for a longer period of time.”
With new PPE, McMullen said he gets more work out of an individual with less effort. That comes as good news to state fire and emergency management agencies bracing for yet another scorching wildland firefighting season.
The last two years saw Milford volunteers dispatched on strike teams to bigger wildland fires outside their operational area. The opportunities bolster both the department’s experience battling wildfire and its revenue, reimbursed through the state’s office of emergency services.
“Now we have the proper gear that we can supply a team to go on a strike team where in the past, we haven’t been able to do that,” said McMullen.
“We’re doing the same job, but now we’re actually able to do the implementations faster; we’re able to do hose lines and cut line because we actually have tools that are built for the job and not just a tool that does the job.”
For a time, it used to be that Milford VFD wouldn’t be dispatched to brush fires and other incidents, Erwin said, “We weren’t that high rated for calling us for responses.” That has changed in recent years owing as much to the change in leadership and the department’s commitment to professional training and certification as having proper PPE and gear. Today, there’s renewed pride in Milford’s reputation.
“We’ve shown that we are the professional department that the community wants us to be.”