With volunteer fire departments in Nebraska struggling to recruit, could some towns fill those gaps by recruiting more People of Color?
By Aaron Bonderson , Report for America Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Oct. 24, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
Listen To This Story
Watch this story
When he was a kid, Rafael Bello Portillo vividly remembers Labor Day parades from his childhood in Schuyler, Nebraska. He had an epiphany one day.
“I remember the Labor Day parades with the fire trucks and the firefighters. And I didn't see anybody who looked like me. And I said, ‘man, I wish one day I could do that,’” Bello Portillo said.
Fast forward to today, Bello Portillo has volunteered with the Schuyler Volunteer Fire Department for two years. That’s in addition to working two paid jobs at UPS and at a local motel. He juggles that, all while taking care of his five-year old daughter.
Hundreds of communities across the state need more people to volunteer their time to fight fires and respond to emergency medical calls.
62 percent of volunteer fire departments surveyed in Nebraska say recruiting is difficult, according to a Nebraska Public Media survey.
Some diverse towns in Nebraska may try to recruit more People of Color to fill those gaps.
Ever since that Labor Day parade, Bello Portillo knew exactly why he wanted to be a firefighter.
“We do so much that we forget to give back and do good for ourselves. And I wanted to change that. I wanted to give back and do something good for me and my community,” Bello Portillo said.
Schuyler is located in east central Nebraska with a population of 6,547 people.
71.7 percent of the population identify as Hispanic, according to the latest Census data. Four firefighters in the Schuyler department are Hispanic.
Recruiting more People of Color to fire departments in diverse towns can be beneficial to the community.
Bello Portillo speaks fluent Spanish. In a diverse town like Schuyler, he believes having firefighters and emergency medical technicians who speak Spanish can be the difference between life and death, especially during emergency medical calls.
“People in the force who don't speak proper Spanish, we teach them how to communicate with other citizens here that are more Spanish speaking. So that's awesome seeing them interact,” Bello Portillo said. “We're acting quick. We need to work together, and they're able to communicate.”
Some firefighters use translation apps on their smartphones to translate their English into Spanish.
Bello Portillo said translation apps take a lot longer when time is of the essence.
“The language barrier could cause us so many delays. In just a matter of time, we can see a fire spread from something so tiny to something very drastic, which we don't want to see,” Bello Portillo said.
Schuyler Fire Chief Brad Sock said having volunteers who can speak someone’s first language can help greatly in an emergency.
“We're all there just to help you out. But, when somebody can speak their Spanish, it makes it a little easier. They kind of open up a little more,” Sock said.
The Schuyler fire department has tried to improve recruitment of minority groups, Sock said.
“I can't say we haven't tried. We have thrown a lot of rocks out there. Just to just grab and try. And it just — sometimes works. Sometimes it don't,” Sock said.
Staffing women is important too, Sock said, especially for pregnancy calls, domestic violence and sexual violence calls. Five women volunteer with Schuyler’s department.
Like many departments around the state, not enough people are volunteering to be firefighters or EMTs in Schuyler. The roster lists 17 volunteers, but Sock said only a handful routinely respond to calls.
Schuyler isn’t alone.
99 miles to the north, the South Sioux City fire department also needs more volunteers.
With a population of 14,043, South Sioux City continues to grow.
South Sioux City Fire chief, Doug Koopman, said people’s busy lives hinder volunteerism. Also, today’s employers seem less willing to let people run toward the fire at any given time, he said.
“Staffing is probably the biggest challenge for our department right now. A few years ago, they transitioned from a 100% volunteer to a full time fire department here. It's called a combination fire department,” Koopman said.
That means some firefighters get paid to work full-time and everyone else volunteers their time.
There are only eight paid firefighters in South Sioux with one open position. A few full-time firefighters volunteer.
About 48 percent of South Sioux’s population is Hispanic and 11.5 percent of the population is Black or African American. That includes a growing Somali population.
Two members of the department are Hispanic and speak fluent Spanish, but Koopman said he was hired to help grow that number.
“I would say we're pretty diverse for the main cultures that we have in the South Sioux City area here, but we can always do better,” Koopman said.
The South Sioux department is getting a $500,000 grant over four years from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It allows Koopman’s department a chance to market, recruit and educate the community about volunteering as a firefighter.
Grant money pays the firefighters, even the volunteers, to spend time at schools and career fairs to recruit more volunteers.
One of those volunteers is Xavier Robles.
He said having a diverse department not only helps with communication in an emergency, but with recruitment too.
“It's more efficient to run through that EMS call when you don't have to use an app to communicate that way. But also the community — kind of reflecting the community and the community here in South Sioux being able to see that,” Robles said.
Back in Schuyler, Bello Portillo said young people also see a department’s representation. He wants them to experience the same excitement for the job that he had as a kid.
“Honestly, I think it's really awesome ‘cause kids come up to me, and they say, ‘hey, you're the firefighter guy.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah.’ And it’s nice seeing little kids that look like me coming up to us and being like, ‘what do you do? How do you do it? What did you do to get into force?’ Things like that. Just like, planting the seed is so awesome,” Bello Portillo said.
Bello Portillo said that someday he hopes that he will be the first full-Mexican fire chief in Schuyler.
For more information on challenges of volunteer fire departments, watch the television documentary “Working Fires: Volunteer Fire Departments in Crisis.”
For more coverage of the survey results, read or listen to: Survey reveals Nebraska volunteer fire departments struggle to recruit members