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The state of gear volunteer firefighters are using

When the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control started visiting fire trainings around the state, what they saw terrified them.

DENVER — When the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control visited fire trainings around the state, what they saw terrified them.

They saw volunteer firefighters using gear and equipment twenty to thirty years old and knew they were using that same gear out on emergency calls. 

This is gear that isn't in compliance with the best standards or didn't fit well, putting firefighters at risk of being hurt and with long-term health problems. 

State legislation passed this year set aside $5 million to go towards new gear, a majority was awarded for volunteer firefighters, including in West Douglas County. 

The folks who work out of the West Douglas County Fire Protection District carry a big responsibility. They have responded to everything from rescuing a young baby from a pool, to fires in canyons and wildland fires.  

It's a lot of responsibility for an all volunteer team, juggling day jobs, families and emergencies.

Thomas Jordan has been volunteering for ten years. He was also in the Air Force for 26 years and retired as an American Airlines pilot just two weeks ago. 

"It's a matter of melding both jobs best you can," he said. 

Alex Horne has been a volunteer firefighter for thirteen and a half years. 

He also owns his own mortgage company. 

"My first urge to be a part of the department is to save my own home during a wildfire," he said. 

Their fellow firefighters are carpenters, engineers and architects, to name a few positions. 

The volunteers have missed events with their kids, family gatherings, put off their own work to be there when someone calls 911. 

They know they are making those sacrifices, but aren't always sure what they are giving up when they put their gear on. 

Both Jordan and Horne talked about how their gear doesn't always manage to fit correctly, is very heavy or just super old, dating back to as far as 2001. Over the years, they have learned the risk that it puts them at, whether it's heart attacks or cancer. 

"This is heavy gear," said Jordan, "The old stuff weighs 80 pounds. The new gear we get is light and a lot easier physically for a firefighter to fight structure fires. The other thing is cancer." 

Jordan said the old gear is harder to wash off toxic substances and that many times firefighters leave it in their car or homes. The new gear will be a lot easier to keep clean. 

Upwards of 70% of the firefighters in Colorado are volunteers, working with agencies that don't have the budget to cover all of their needs. As the state started visiting trainings, they were appalled to see the condition of the gear. Everything from holes in jackets to shoes that didn't hold up to what was required of firefighters. 

"Volunteers provide a service to our society for no reimbursement and their health and safety could be compromised," said Lori Brill, with the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control. 

Brill said having the wrong gear can change the way they respond to an emergency, whether a rescue is realistic and how to tackle a house fire as examples. 

"I hope it extends my life," said Jordan, "I'm 65 years old. My firefighting days are limited. Hopefully I can do this as many years I can. New equipment is going to protect me that much further." 

Their families are hoping for the same. Margaret Guthrie is married to one of the volunteers John. They met on a mission trip to Mexico. Both are widowed and met about a year and a half ago. 

She is new to Colorado and to the world of volunteer firefighting. 

She says I love you and I'm praying for you every time John leaves on a call. 

Then she found out the state of the gear. 

"Now that I know how old the gear is," said Guthrie, "It's nerve-wracking." 

Families and firefighters alike are sharing the relief the department is receiving new gear, knowing regardless their commitment to the community would stay the same. 

"It's going to help us be better at what we do," said Horne, "We will be more comfortable and safe and more endurance when we are on scene." 

Lisa Pines, the Section Chief with DFPC, said their state agency administered the grant, and received requests adding up to $17 million when they had $5 million to give. That $5 million reached 84 agencies. 

"It really should be unacceptable to the communities they serve," said Pines. Many of these agencies with out of date gear host community fundraisers to help their budget. 

Pines said of the $5 million, around $200,000 went to the West Douglas Fire Protection District. 

"They were going to do it no matter what," said Pines, "Continue to go out in the gear that is out of compliance with the NFPA standards. They are driven to do a job for their community." Often, volunteer firefighters are closest and usually the first on scene, including the historic record breaking fires in Colorado. 

A Senate bill passed this last session will help provide an additional $10 million over the next two years to continue to help volunteer firefighters with their gear. 

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