central fire

Dylan Whitmer, fire chief for Albany County Fire District No. 1’s Central Fire Department, discusses his station’s crowded bay at their temporary location north of Laramie.

Since Albany County Fire District No. 1’s Central Volunteer Fire Department was formed in early 2017, it’s manpower has grown from practically nothing to a volunteer camaraderie of about 25 people.

The department was established to address the fire protection needs of growing subdivisions on Laramie’s outskirts.

A year ago, the department had 5-6 firefighters to cover more than 1,000 acres and 30,000 people.

The number of volunteers has grown since then, but not enough, Chief Dylan Whitmer said.

“We’re understaffed, plain and simple,” he said.

Still, the station has come further than Whitmer expected when first opened.

He had been the training officer for the Centennial department before the district’s fire board voted him in as the Central department’s first chief.

The department’s temporarily housed north of town in an a building rented from Hamaker Excavation.

It started with one truck. Now their small bay is out of room.

“I thought we’d never see the day when it’s full,” Whitmer said.

When the department first started, Whitmer estimates he spent about 40 hours a week working on getting it up and running — that’s in addition to his day job at the University of Wyoming.

“I do this because I’m passionate about it,” he said. “I’d quit my job for this.”

At the end of October, the district purchased a new piece of 1.6-acre property south of Laramie. That property lies on the northwest corner of Fort Sanders Road and U.S. Highway 287, immediately south of New Life Church. Once a fire station is built there, it will be the Central department’s permanent home. That station is expected to help lower the cost of homeowner’s insurance for residents in the area.

The district board has set a budget of $800,000 for the new station. Board members have hired an engineering firm and plan to submit a grant request to the Office of State Lands and Investments by February. If that grant were approved in June, the district would put up $200,000 and the state would cover the rest.

Cody Maxon, a firefighter for the Central department, said the department plans to have living quarters on site.

That would be a boon for attracting more help from one of the department’s key volunteer pools: UW.

“Residency programs are very successful in university communities,” Maxon said.

Among fire departments in Wyoming, the Central department’s volunteer base is unusually young.

Maxon’s a UW student studying economics. Following in his father’s footsteps, the California native sought out work volunteering as a firefighter when he came to study at Laramie.

At Thursday’s business meeting, about half of the attending firefighters were also UW students.

Ben Jacek, a freshman at UW, is one of the youngest firefighters. He came to Laramie from Massachusetts and decided to volunteer after getting an EMT certification over the summer.

“I discovered that I loved this stuff,” he said.

Volunteer firefighting is especially a good fit for UW students, Maxon said. Students typically have more flexible schedules than people in the workforce, and with enough training, Maxon said volunteers can earn good money working on federal wildfires during the summer — enough money that can negate the need for a part-time job during the school year.

Having college students as a key volunteer base creates an unusual culture at the station, Whitmer said.

For however long he’s the fire chief, Whitmer said he expects a “transient” staff.

New volunteers will often join with little to no experience and then leave after a few years.

The department has weekly training meeting each Thursday. Those meetings get good attendance numbers — usually about 10 of the roughly 25 volunteers.

His young crew is also enthusiastic. At any given time, there’s usually someone at the station, Whitmer said.

“They’re always here — willing to help or working out,” he said.

He said he’s also working on developing a “little bit of a different culture to where we’re all trained to the same standard.”

That helps ensure that, when there’s a response needed, the everyone knows what their job is.

“We can put any one of these firefighters on a truck and tell to to do anything and they can do it,” said Zach Alexander, one of the more experienced firefighters on staff.

Even with an dedicated base of firefighters, Whitmer said increasing the department’s numbers will be important to making sure all hours are covered.

People interested in volunteering at the department should email Whitmer at dwhitmer.acfd1.central@outlook.com.

The department is also hosting its first fundraiser from noon to 4 p.m. today.

The fire station’s open house, at 4387 N. Third St., will have a 50/50 raffle and other raffles, a silent auction, photos with Santa, Toys for Tots and sit-ins and ride-alongs in the fire trucks (weather permitting).

Chili and brats will be served, with all proceeds going to purchase firefighting equipment for volunteers.

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