Majority of firefighters are volunteers. However, after risking their lives, they end up suffering behind the curtain- physically and emotionally. The trauma and health implications they have to go through go unnoticed. Compared to the level of work they do, the system owes them the respect, recognition, and assistance they deserve. This gap in the response system is an overlooked crisis that must be addressed if we are to move forward together.
In this episode, Jennifer sits with Volunteer Fire Foundation CEO and Founder, Jacqui Jorgenson. Jennifer and Jacqui discuss the lack of support experienced by volunteer firefighters, the disparities in resources and funding between fire agencies, the deeper unmet needs they have to endure, and the negative effects of heroification. When we are in our darkest moments, volunteer first-responders come to our rescue without hesitation. Certainly, they deserve more than getting paid in gratitude. Tune in as Jacqui shares how you can take part in helping the helpers remain safe, healthy, and sane.
“Let the timing flow, be open to finding your space. There is a room for everyone and a need for everyone to participate. We’re at a critical point in human evolution where we don’t have the luxury of waiting for everyone else to solve the problems. We have to do this together.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
- 02:03: Stepping Into Something New
- 05:33: Who are the Volunteer Firefighters
- 11:50: The Percentage of Volunteer Firefighters
- 16:25: Unmet Needs
- 25:27: Firefighters and Their Health
- 33:10: Be Careful Not to Push Them in Isolation
- 37:23: Stop Paying in Gratitude
- 43:09: Grant Scenarios
- 47:38: Support Volunteer Fire Foundation
- 56:13: We Have to Do This Together!
02:41: “When you’re starting with something very new and exploring a brand new space, it’s not even a confidence thing. It’s just how grounded in reality are you.” -Jacqui Jorgenson
09:05: “When we especially look at the more rural volunteer fire departments, they don’t ask for much, and so they don’t receive much. They just make do with what they have. 90% of firefighting is creativity, it’s problem solving.” -Jacqui Jorgenson
12:21: “As a nation, we are leaning so heavily on a population of people who are barely hanging on.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
21:22: “We’ve got volunteers who don’t have any of those resources or any of that safety net., but they’re still showing up.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
31:26: “It’s not about whether or not the fire departments care, it’s about resources and opportunities and in some cases, even education.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
34:52: “We also have to be very careful that we do not isolate them into that space because we are asking just human beings to show up and do the right thing over and over again.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
38:13: “We have to stop deciding that people should be paid in gratitude.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
47:25: “There is no reason why volunteer firefighters should not have extractors and the food, safety and wellness they need.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
49:49: “Cancer is a common side effect of firefighting, but it sure doesn’t have to be. There are treatments available.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
51:30: “We need our firefighters; we need every single one of them” –Jacqui Jorgenson
54:17: “What’s better for us is for the public to do better for the firefighters who are risking their lives, their health, and their mental well being in order to support our safety. In our darkest moments they always come running, they never decline to do that.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
57:36: “Let the timing flow, be open to finding your space. There is a room for everyone and a need for everyone to participate. We’re at a critical point in human evolution where we don’t have the luxury of waiting for everyone else to solve the problems. We have to do this together.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
Jacqui Jorgeson is a writer and fourth-generation Californian. A trip to Greece in the height of the Syrian refugee crisis propelled her into grassroots nonprofit work. In the spring of 2016, Jacqui helped to establish the Schoolbox Project, which delivers trauma-informed care to the littlest victims of natural and political disasters around the world. Now a mother, Jacqui feels deeply called to serve her community at home. She lives in Santa Rosa with her husband Kevin and two-year-old son Edsel.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, How To Disaster where we talk about how to recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m the CEO and co-founder of After The Fire. On today’s episode, I’m happy to welcome Jacqui Jorgeson, the founder and executive director of the Volunteer Fire Foundation. Jackie is a writer and a fourth generation Californian. The Volunteer Fire foundation supports underfunded volunteer firefighters from their recruitment to their retirement in Sonoma County and beyond. It’s so important that we help the helpers, and like other guests you’ve had on our show, we want to highlight how we take care of ourselves too. You can find out more about Jackie and her organization at www.volunteerfire.org. Thank you everyone for joining us today.
Jacqui Jorgeson, welcome to the How To Disaster Podcast. Thank you again, Jacqui Jorgeson, for being on the podcast today.
Jacqui Jorgeson: It’s such a joy to be here with you. Thank you for having me.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: This is a pretty fun podcast for us to have. Because over the last 18 months, we’ve had a lot of contact. I did say this in the intro, I talked about the day that you cold called me to see in a very polite way if perhaps you would be interested in supporting your dream. And indeed, I said, and I’ll say it again, I’ll say it every single time that we’d love to invest time, energy and resources in great people with great ideas inside of the sphere. So I’d love for you to start off the program today by telling our audience about your organization, and then how it came to be an idea that you executed.
“When you’re starting with something very new and exploring a brand new space, it’s not even a confidence thing. It’s just how grounded in reality are you.” -Jacqui Jorgenson
Jacqui Jorgeson: I just want to say before I go there, reflecting on that first phone call, I very much assumed I would be speaking into a voicemail and was not anticipating you to answer, and my heart kind of skipped a beat and I thought, okay, it’s go time, and you cut me off I think maybe seven seconds in, and you said: “Just so you know, this is a yes.” And I will never for the rest of my life forget that because it was that authentic, that immediate, that genuine. And I’ll get into this in a moment, when you’re starting with something so very new, exploring a brand new space, it’s not even a confident thing. It just feels sort of how grounded in reality you are. You know that you’re at the very foothills of an extremely steep climb, and to have someone believe in you and provide that kind of external reinforcement, that container or that something that I could lean on was just a profound experience for me, and it truly set me on this path. I don’t want to be too fatalistic, but I don’t know how things would have shaken out without your support, and the way that you supported, so thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You are very welcome. And if I can just say that part of what leads my philosophy around these things is that I feel like certain people have said yes to me. It’s really important spots in my life that I feel that it’s a great thing to actually do, and an honor to actually be able to say yes to great ideas and great people. Because I know that for everything that I’ve ever accomplished in my life, I have never done it alone. And it’s always been that somebody has said, I see something in you, I think your idea is good, and I’m going to take a leap of faith. And I mark all those people along the way. I love the opportunity to actually be one of those people for you. I think it’s an important thing to highlight. You’re going to turn around and give that again and again to somebody else. So I love that part.
Jacqui Jorgeson: Thank you, I treasure you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Love is totally worth it. The thing is that this space is hard. This space of wildfire and in disaster recovery, it’s a slog. And a lot of people are like, I have all these ideas at the very beginning, but executing them can be really tough. And if we don’t support each other, and I always do like supporting another strong female leader. I’m not gonna lie, that never hurts. But how are we actually going to get to the other side of this, the only way through is through it together. And anything that we can do in order to support another smart ethical person was a great idea. And I really loved the radio because it’s so much about helping the helpers, and they really do deserve it. So let’s go ahead and segue into what do you do, Jacqui, and what is your organization?
Jacqui Jorgeson: I feel so honored to be able to do the work that I do because I support firefighters. Who doesn’t love that? Who are the truest heroes that are left? I feel like we’ve got like firefighters and teachers. And even beyond that narrow aperture, what kind of firefighters volunteers? I mean, there’s something so pure about volunteer firefighters. And to be really clear, because they’re amazing at just about everything they do, but they’re super lousy publicists. So I want to take a moment and just explain — your firefighters are because you got your questions like, oh, is it the same as the Innate Program? No.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We love the Innate Program, but it is not the same.
Jacqui Jorgeson: Absolutely. It’s not the same. But it goes to show that even the Innates get more press than our volunteer firefighters. You could be a volunteer firefighter, I could be a volunteer firefighter, they are our neighbors. And we have people coming from every single sector, every sort of walk of life, and they feel called to support their communities. So they typically go to the nearest fire agency to them, although there’s some variability there now, but somewhere close, and they sign up. I mean, there’s kind of like a short list of boxes, they have to check, they’ve got to be over 18, they’ve got to have a clean driver’s record and criminal history. And then the agency will interview them and then take over from there. They cover all of the training, volunteer firefighters are trained to a state mandate. So they have the same training as their paid peers. They answer the same calls that come through the same dispatch center. The only difference is, they do it for $0. Every now and again, as a special enticement, some of these agencies will offer a stipend. And that stipend at the highest end is $100 for a 24 hour shift. At the lowest end, it’s five bucks a call. That call might be four hours long responding to a car accident in the middle of the night.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Isn’t there a cost though to becoming a firefighter not only, I mean, a volunteer firefighter. So it’s more than just volunteering, there’s actually, there’s a cost to it.
Jacqui Jorgeson: It depends on where they want to go with it. So for it to be kind of an entry level volunteer firefighter, for the most part, your agency is going to cover all of that expense. And that can be a really extraordinary expense. And then as they sort of find their way into this system and into the work, they start to see the advantages of doing specialty training. And that might be rope rescue, that might be becoming EMT certified. That’s where it gets a little bit gray, especially the smaller agencies that have virtually no county or other government funding whatsoever. They’re relying on these little pancake breakfasts just to kind of squeak by, and keep their lights on, and try and maintain the basic level of safety standards in their gear and their equipment. With varying degrees of success, these agencies can’t always afford these more advanced training. And so in those scenarios, firefighters volunteers will often kind of pull up out of pocket for that.
“When we especially look at the more rural volunteer fire departments, they don’t ask for much, and so they don’t receive much. They just make do with what they have. 90% of firefighting is creativity, it’s problem solving.” -Jacqui Jorgenson
But the bigger picture of this is that so, let’s just kind of compare for a moment. I just want to preface this by saying that anyone who throws on a pair of turnouts and hops on an engine in service of others is my hero forever. So this isn’t about a kind of paid versus volunteer kind of thing. In fact, most paid firefighters started out as volunteers. I just want to be very, very clear. Volunteer Fire Foundation was created to do is help balance out the gaps and disparities in the resources and funding between the fire agencies all around Sonoma County, the North Bay region at large, and now we’re even kind of moving up, geographically speaking into more points north. When we especially look at the more rural volunteer fire departments, they don’t ask for much, and so they don’t receive much. And they just make do with what they have. They’re the most resourceful people you’ve ever met. What I’ve gotten to understand is that 90% of firefighting is creativity, it’s problem solving. It’s sort of like showing up to a situation where it’s literally a cow in a well and you’re like, huh, okay, this is a physics issue. We got some ropes, and it’s working with the tools that they have, and they’re really good at it. But what they are desperately lacking is, again, the smaller agencies especially, they’re lacking the tax base. You look kind of like pastoral West Sonoma County, for example. They have a handful of neighbors, and a lot of those neighbors are just kind of scraping by. And because they’re neighbors, they’re not just the citizens, the nameless, faceless citizens, it’s their friends, it’s their family members. These are really close communities we’re talking about. So you look at, for example, a COVID year, so our volunteer firefighters have long kind of struggled just to make ends meet, but they do their job anyway.
But now into COVID, where suddenly those cute little pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners are gone, they weren’t even happening, they weren’t even on the table anymore. And on top of that, maybe to subsidize those little fundraisers, these agencies would send out a yearly mailer saying, hey, this is what we’ve been doing in your community that we’ve answered 300 calls, 70% of them are medical. We went to this many structure fires. If you feel able and called, we would really appreciate your support. They’re doing that these days because they know their neighbors, they know that Joe lost his job. They know that Mary has her two kids, and she’s [inaudible]]. And it’s like, she works in a restaurant, the restaurants obviously, I keep hearing again and again, well, we just don’t want to ask. We just don’t feel like asking, especially now.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Let’s clarify, as we make the case for support, in case anyone’s listening or watching this podcast and they think, what I really want to do is support volunteer firefighters. And so I think we need to clarify what percentage of firefighters are volunteers in Sonoma County. Sonoma County is one rural county, actually incredibly well resourced. But that can actually work against a volunteer fire department because it’s incredibly expensive to live. And so we have sort of a dichotomy there. And what goes unfunded specifically in those fire departments. So just those two quick points of clarification and then move on, if you don’t mind? If that’s okay?
“As a nation, we are leaning so heavily on a population of people who are barely hanging on.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
Jacqui Jorgeson: Brilliant, Jennifer, thank you. So nationwide, and this isn’t just a Sonoma County issue. Although with our fires, of course, there’s an extra sense of urgency to supporting them. But nationwide, 70% of all firefighters are volunteers. That was the thing that blew my mind when I first started kind of dipping a toe into this. How am I going to help? I think this is an area where I could help fill some gaps. What is this landscape? That was the statistic that stopped me dead in my tracks. I just couldn’t fathom that as a nation, we are leaning so heavily on a population of people who are barely hanging on because they are working their day jobs, they are trying to support their families, they’re trying to pay their rent or their mortgage and trying to fulfill state mandated training requirements, go to drill nights, go on the calls themselves. Not to mention when you have these fires, they’re getting pulled away from their paying jobs for weeks at a time now that never used to happen in the past.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s shocking, actually. I think it might have been one of the first statistics that you told me, and I work in this space. I did not know before you told me that we were depending on that much volunteer labor in order to actually deal with, like climate emergencies, but also right down to car accidents. I was super shocked by that number. I just thank you.
Jacqui Jorgeson: The little old lady down the road who can’t get out of bed on her own and can afford her medical care. So what does she do? She calls her volunteer fire department. That number drops a little bit, and that number is falling. It’s falling nationwide. Especially falling in Sonoma County, because like you said, who can afford to juggle all of this. I mean, most people who are gonna afford to live here, they’re deep in the hustle. They’re getting squeezed from every angle. So right now, about 60% of all firefighters in Sonoma County, except for CAL FIRE. That’s numbers probably a little bit lower all told, but about 60% of all firefighters in Sonoma County are volunteers. And that’s a number that we collected ourselves because I was kind of figured out, I was checking with the Board of Supervisors, I was looking on the Sonoma county website like, what are the numbers here? No one actually had them. No one could give a straight answer because it’s fluctuating, and active volunteer means something different to every department. But that felt really important to me to figure out. So we’ve got an email every single chief directly and tallied it up, and we’ve got just about 600 volunteer firefighters from 18 years old all the way up into like their 70’s and 80’s. And the thing is, they all going out on all the calls all the time? No. But when the big fires come, they’re all there. Those 70 year olds are driving the tenders. They’re not running the hose, but they’re behind the wheel. They’re out there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can be a total [inaudible], it’s 70. We’re not saying that for sure, but it’s the fire, after fire, after day, after day. And the frequency, and how long our fire season is now, there’s so much danger to life and property, it is a very tall ask of a volunteer firefighter in his or her 70’s. And while some people are super strong in their 70’s, I don’t plan on being that strong.
Jacqui Jorgeson: And part of the reason why I mentioned age is because a paid firefighter retires at 55 because it’s brutal on your body. Think of what you’re inhaling, think of what you’re doing, think of what you are seeing, think of the emotional toll. And some of those paid firefighters when they retire, they’re still volunteering.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Volunteer Fire Foundation, what are the gaps, what do you do with your funding? What kind of gaps do you fill? Because one of the things that I do love, and I’m just going to start, I’m going to lead, I’m going to give you the witness, a leading question. One of the great things that I love that you did last year is that you brought in some corporate sponsors like William Sonoma to do these really top end kits for when they’re out in the field. And that’s just filling a need to make their lives a little bit easier, a little bit better, a little more manageable while they’re actually on the frontlines. So can you talk about some of those ways that you have directed your funding in ways that you have unmet needs that you would really like to see filled over the next three to five years?
Jacqui Jorgeson: Absolutely. So you’re talking about our Strike-Team-Kit program. And that’s kind of like an ultimate getting where you fit in sort of thing because we had launched this thing in theory in the beginning of 2020. And we thought we were going to have this really grand debutante ball of a fundraiser and bring in money. And we had this kind of platinum award winning musical artist who’s going to come and perform, and it was amazing. There would be passed up craft cocktails, and then COVID record scratch, everything ended as you know, for many, many months, and then the Wallbridge happened. And my first thought, as you know was, I’m getting the hell out of here. I have a two year old, he was one at the time, and I thought, that’s it. This is our third devastating catastrophic fire in three years. Life as we knew it in Sonoma County is over. And if it was just me, it might be different. I have a family, I have this little boy with precious developing lungs. What life is this? What kind of life is this? Where’s it going to go from here? And I spent out into the darkest place. And because I love it here, it was like breaking up with the love of your life through no one’s fault. That was week one of the Wallbridge.
And then something happened in week two. I’d found the one little pocket of green air and all of Sonoma County to take my son for a walk. And it was some park up in Windsor, and I recognized the name but I didn’t know why. We drove up and we got up, we hiked up to the top of the first hill. And suddenly, we were surrounded by burnt oak and manzanita. And a chill went all the way up my body and back down again. I realized why I knew the name of that park, it was Foothill Regional Park. And that is where our firefighters took a stand during the Kincade in 2019 to protect the entire city of Windsor, and everything that was beyond all the way to the coast. And I have REDCOM dispatch audio files of all the calls that they put out that night. The first time they’ve ever used it, it was created after the tubs. It’s a tone that goes out to every single agency. We never had that before because we never needed it.
And so that night, during the Kincade, they put out the all call. And that means everyone come, if you can be here now, we need you. And the responses make me cry. Because there are volunteers from every corner of the county. They came all the way up from Lakeville on highway 37. They came all the way over from the coast. They came all the way down from the northern border. The one that makes me cry, Jennifer, every single time is chief Bonnie Plakos of North Sonoma Coast. And her voice comes through, she gives her identifier number and she says, response time two and a half hours, we’re on our way. And it just kills me. It kills me. They came, everyone came. This might not be the kind of thing where chiefs go on record saying this, but you talk to them in private conversation and they say, our volunteer firefighters are the reason that this fire stopped where it did. But you knew what? When there was the welcome back Windsor party, the volunteers weren’t invited. They’re the background noise. They’re like the infantry, they’re the humble warriors who just come when they’re called. And then they go back, they go back to their families, they go back to their lives.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, they’re never ever, ever going to say, please invite us. That’s never gonna happen. When we were doing The Rise Up Project, we were building this mile of common fencing and the Windsor Fire Department showed up. And because they had helped defend that neighborhood and had lost it, not by any fault of their own, I’m in 2017, and they said to us, we want to be invited to some of the fun stuff too. Like, they need that recovery and rebuilding piece of it, because they’re members of the community.
Jacqui Jorgeson: It’s therapeutic, especially when they see so much destruction. They want to be a part of the rebuilding of the re-growth. I share that just to give a little bit more context and explain when these fires happen, you have your staff to stations. And these firefighters are paid, they have pension plans, they have benefits, their families are taken care of. God forbid anything happens to them. Because they’re protected by these amazing labor unions, they have their backs.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yep. 100%. And we applaud that for the record.
“We’ve got volunteers who don’t have any of those resources or any of that safety net., but they’re still showing up.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
Jacqui Jorgeson: Everything they get, and more. By contrast, you’ve got volunteers who don’t have any of those resources or any of that safety net, but they’re still showing up to the same fires. And they’re showing up from their houses, it’s like they kiss their wives goodbye, or they leave their kids’ birthday party, whatever it may be their jobs, and they run to the station, hop in an engine, but they have no idea when they’re going to be back. What was happening, so for example, I was hearing from the chief of Two Rock, who is actually a member of our board, Lori Anello. She just retired after an entire career of being a professional firefighter at the fire station on the Coast Guard Base. And then she’s also the chief, the Volunteer Fire Chief of Two Rock, this little rural station out in West County. Siamese cat in the background.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s okay. I’ve got it. I’ve got a snoring mastiff.
Jacqui Jorgeson: I got my yelling. Yeah. So she said, Jacqui, my guys haven’t had a meal in five days.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I mean, they’re not–
Jacqui Jorgeson: Maybe had like what was left of a sandwich, they were running out of drinking water. They’re up in like 500 or more, like vertical feet up a dozer trail deep in the woods, because think about where these fires burned. Yes, they’re burning into where homes are, but think about where they originate. They are in deep, deep wilderness. And so it’s not like, first of all, the first few days on a fire, there’s no CAL FIRE base camp. The incident command hasn’t been set up yet. The machine has not arrived. They’re not doing the kind of 24 hour on, 24 hour off shifts that occur when once the incident is kind of formalized. It’s really kind of rugged, all hands on deck, find your place, and stick with it and defend. So it’s like good luck getting them off of that hill to go down and grab a sandwich. Like they’re not doing it, they’re gonna stay in, they’re gonna fight and they’re gonna save every last home that they can. So our first idea, when I kind of snapped out of my terrible reverie of like, I can’t raise my son here. We’re out. I’m like on Zillow looking at Upstate New York properties. That was the moment that it kind of shook off the cobwebs and thought not to be too dramatic about it. But like, this is our home and we have people who are defending it in the most literal sense. The least I can do as long as we are here is make sure they have everything they need to be able to do that. And so that’s when I reached out to the Chief Shepley Schroth-Cary who is like the patron saint next to you, like the patron saint of this project, and for sure, the patron saint of volunteer firefighters everywhere. He’s the chief of Goldridge Fire District in rural Sebastopol. And he’s also the chief of Northbay Fire which is a collective of the last remaining 100% Volunteer Fire companies in this county. And so he’s just been a phenomenal resource, leader and a sounding board for me through all of this.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I like these stories. We’re gonna take a quick 32nd break to do a promotion. This podcast is sponsored by Fire Safety Science for our audience. Listen to this, and we think this is a great, great idea, a great project, so we’ll be right back.
Welcome back to the podcast How To Disaster. Our guest today is Jacqui Jorgeson. She is the founder and executive director of the Volunteer Fire foundation. So Jacqui, you were taking us into your phone call with Shepley.
Jacqui Jorgeson: I just left this charred park with my son and I’m heading home kind of my head spinning. Okay, we’re not going to launch onto the scene with a fancy fundraiser, we’re just going to find a space. Our land is burning, our firefighters are exhausted. What do we do next? I called Shepley, and he had the audacity to brush me off at first and said: “Listen, they’re fine, they’re fine. Whatever, it’s all fine.” And I said: “I’m gonna take you back to the very first conversation that we ever had, Shepley, because we sat down in a coffee shop, and you looked me in the eyes after listening to my schpeel and you said, this is a thing. It’s incredibly needed. And the hardest part of your job will be convincing firefighters that they need anything.” And there was a pause and he said: “Okay, I’ll call you back in 20 minutes.” All of his Volunteer Fire Chiefs, and sure enough, within 20 minutes, I was getting orders. To Rock needs four COTS because people are crashing at the station for the next round, and they’re sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor.
And by the way, they’re borrowing neighbor’s sleeping bags. If you happen to be able to get your hands on any, we’re in a pandemic, right? You happen to have any kind of new sleeping bags that you could procure, that’d be great. This crew over here, [inaudible] in, they wouldn’t love a hot coffee. Whether it’s first thing in the morning or the middle of the night. These guys over here would love to be able to have just like a warm meal. Because when CAL FIRE steps in, and this isn’t not CAL FIRE, they’re an incredible organization. But again, you look at this giant engine, what they put together as a bag of MRE’s, and it’s based purely on caloric content. So you sort of like dumped out this huge brown paper bag, and it’s kind of like all prepackaged, all filled with preservatives. It’s all high sugar, and you think about the work that these people are putting in on these lines. So if I could do this for every single agency on the planet, I would. But it’s like, we put together these kits, they’re called Strike Team Comfort Kits, and it has a high quality yeti cooler that’ll keep their drinks cold. It’s got a jetboil portable cook system. It comes with the coffee that they can make on the fly. It comes with really nutritious, dehydrated meals and snacks. Blackdiamond was so generous to donate headlamps, quality headlamps because they blow through those, and they’re a hot commodity. And the volunteers can afford a quality one anyway. It’s some of these basic things.
And I have to tell you, I felt almost a little bit sheepish raising funds for this and leading with this. Because I’d already been doing a year of research, and I knew that, to go back to your earlier question, there were these greater, deeper, more meaningful needs. I knew that they were lacking extractor washing machines, which are specific for volunteer firefighters. And they exist in every single paid station, and they remove all of the carcinogenic, toxic sludge from their turnouts after they return from a car accident. Think of the black smoke that’s coming away from a car fire and what’s in that, the burning petrochemicals. Think of these WUI wildland fires where it’s like, these are forever chemicals built into our homes, into our paint, into our furniture. They’re not meant to burn, they are not meant for human consumption, and they are killing firefighters.
So all of the paid folks have these washing machines in their stations, but are a no brainer, they haven’t had to worry about them in 20 years. There’s a whole protocol, but it’s like you wipe down a scene, you take off the tournament, you go back, you don’t step anywhere in the firehouse until you’ve put these things in the washing machine. The volunteers, they can afford 3,500 bucks for the Washington machine. Not to mention the special drying cabinet. So they take them off. A lot of these departments don’t even have a place to hang them up. Or if they do have room, the rats will get to it because they’re in these little sheds in rural communities. So what do they do with their protective gear that they’ve been wearing? They take it off, they put it in the backs of the trunks of their cars, and they drive home, and they put them in their family’s washing machines. That’s happening. So Chief Lori Anello from Two Rock that I mentioned, during the Kincade was not able to respond because she was in surgery having her second breasts removed. We have a volunteer firefighter. He’s a single mom in Bodega who had cancer last year, and she’s a CAL FIRE seasonal employee. And when she’s home, she’s volunteering for Bodega.
“It’s not about whether or not the fire departments care, it’s about resources and opportunities and in some cases, even education.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The health implications for all firefighters are increasingly alarming. And I just want to back you up on that one. We are all being poisoned by our air all the time right now during six months of the year in our fire season on the West Coast. This is not your fireplace ash, this is oily, it has a very particular texture to it, and it’s toxic. And it’s not only the constant sort of drain on your mental and physical well being, from being constantly working on fires, but also what the chemicals that firefighters are exposed to is very great concern. And so I’m glad that you’re, I just want to put a pin in that for sure and really highlight that. I remember right after the 2017 fires, I’m going on a tour when I worked for the county with a CAL FIRE Chief. And the whole time, he kept clearing his throat. I asked him about it after a while, just because I was wondering. And he says that he pretty much has it constantly being on the frontlines. And it’s not about, whether or not the fire departments care, it’s about resources and opportunities. And in some cases, even education. So I just want to really point that out, that we look at like 911, and what happened there was all the chemicals, and the petrol, the jet fuel, and how that affected people’s lives forever physically.
Jacqui Jorgeson: And here we are at the 20th anniversary, and it’s very personal for me because I was out there at that time. 22 years old and was at Ground Zero the week after. I have some of those chemicals in my body as we speak, and we lost 343 firefighters that day. And we’ve lost another, I believe it’s 254 to Ground Zero related illnesses, 27 died last year. And gosh, you look at the research in the last few years, the International Association of Firefighters has been collecting this data, and 7 out of 10 line of duty deaths now are from cancer among firefighters.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Sue Farren talks about how, she was a paramedic, she’s a founder of First Responder Resiliency which does a lot of well, I almost said well baby care, but I meant like firefighter care. Because your adrenaline is always running, we are not doctors here, by the way, do not take any of your medical advice from us. But we’re telling you what we see in our field. It is research, but don’t believe us. Do your own research. And that doesn’t mean YouTube, that means actual studies by people with degrees and things.
Jacqui Jorgeson: We have a lot of the research on our website, volunteerfire.org.
“We also have to be very careful that we do not isolate them into that space because we are asking just human beings to show up and do the right thing over and over again.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I did mention your website at the very beginning, and we are definitely going to drop that into the comments. It’s really important that people can access that. But also know that kidney cancer rates are very high. There is another unfortunate comorbidity of mental health care issues. And one of the things that she taught me, and I’m just going to interject here as a PSA, they are heroes to us, we see how hard they work.
I know that after the 2017 fires, I saw a volunteer firefighter that I’ve known for a long time. We were in Starbucks, and I looked at him and I just couldn’t stop crying. And it was really embarrassing. It was like a quiet cry. Everybody around got really quiet. It was like drenching down my face because I was so grateful. And he was so sweet. He’s basically like trying to comfort me, but I was like, I didn’t even know what to say because this has just been the most horrendous physical experience and terrifying, and they had saved where I grew up. And I was like, I don’t even know who I would be if you hadn’t saved this town. But Sue taught me to have gratitude and respect, but don’t isolate them in that point of heroism because they do not know how to ask for help. I don’t want to a asked for resources that could be given to somebody else that’s very common with helpers, and be they can become very isolated and leads to self medication, it can lead to suicide, it can lead to a lot of other comorbidities. And so as we support them and call them heroes when they’re not listening, we also have to be very careful that we do not isolate them into that space because we are asking just human beings to show up and do the right thing over, and over, and over again.
Jacqui Jorgeson: I am so grateful that you said that. I keep trying to write a post about it and deleting it, and deleting it, and journaling about it. Yeah, no hiding it away. And when I say that, I mean, really for decades now ever since 9/11, because what I saw being so close to the epicenter of that was, first, that massive, surging upwelling of gratitude. And exactly what you said, we would all burst into tears on site. Still, when I see a fire truck going code three, two, God knows what destination, it makes me cry every time. I haven’t been able to shake it since that day. And yeah, it is a little bit embarrassing. At this point, the thing you notice, I haven’t been able to sleep since Friday night leading up to kind of like this 20 year threshold, this anniversary. And the thing that loops, and loops, and loops the most is a frustration bordering with anger with what I call the hero suffocation of our firefighters, this sort of like legless heroification. And I don’t fault people for it, I know that it is genuine, I know that it is sincere, but it is not enough. And there’s something that I found, because this was me. So it’s not me pointing fingers. This was me. There was something like, well, I cannot be more grateful. Like my job here is done, because I am sending you these waves of gratitude. And it felt like I was somehow participating, that it was somehow like I was part of the feedback loop. And I was giving back in that way. And it’s not that gratitude isn’t potent, but Jerry Brown actually said–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m so afraid of what comes next after that sentence, by the way.
Jacqui Jorgeson: I’m pausing and pausing because I should remember the exact context in which this occurred. But when firefighters were pushing for better benefits, for more pay for more protections, he said that firefighters are paid in gratitude.
“We have to stop deciding that people should be paid in gratitude.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. If we go on a whole tangent about, I was a teacher for 10 years, I got really tired of hearing, you’re an Angel. I’m like, no, I’m really just a struggling single mom, and I enjoy my kids. But you know what? The pay is awful. And the pay for firefighters is at least double that of teachers. It’s good, like we say what I think is appropriate, which is what you and I are talking about today. We can contextualize their actions as being heroic, and we can also give them the support that they need, and that they deserve, and that it is long past the time, or we should be way past the time, or we changed the system so that we are ensuring that firefighters are kept safe, they are kept healthy, they are kept saying, and we can go into teachers and a whole other thing, but we have to stop deciding that people should be paid in gratitude.
Jacqui Jorgeson: Yes, the paid firefighters do tend to receive a living wage. And thank God, again, I still think it’s never enough. But again, to go back to the volunteers, they’re not doing it for the money, clearly. The least that we can do is make sure that they have the absolute basics to be able to do their damn job to go back to it. Because I know, I go off on these tangents, but to make it like very kind of tangible and clear on what we do. Again, our website kind of lays all this out way more succinctly than I ever will. So we do the supply kit campaigns. I’m renting a U-Haul tomorrow morning, driving down into the city and picking up another 64 yetis. We’re in full swing to do another campaign, and these kits are going to be going up into northern California and throughout the rest of, we’ve already done half of Mendocino and Napa counties, and so we’re expanding Lake County. We’re coming for you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love Lake County. I’m going to be especially happy about that. We just went $5,000 worth of stuff for, and it wasn’t for them because they requested it. The CAL FIRE Chief Paul Duncan and Mike Wink requested it in order to give away to the residents. It wasn’t even for them.
Jacqui Jorgeson: So do you have other volunteer firefighters driving around, I feel like I’ve told you the story, Jen, but Camp Meeker has the cutest little 35 year old engine. I wrote a children’s book about it called a [inaudible] Fire Truck because it’s adorable.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you put a link so we can drop how to buy that book online?
Jacqui Jorgeson: We’re not there yet. That’s the kind of thing where we will, yeah, when the time comes. I didn’t want to put the resources just yet, but it’s like one day, that’ll be a fundraising tool.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Cute little 35 year old–
Jacqui Jorgeson: They have the cutest engine, and when I first met it, I’d heard stories about it. I met it up on the fireline above Armstrong Woods. I was huffing and puffing up a dozer. And that was the first thing that kind of came out of my mouth. I was like, this isn’t a fire truck, it’s a children’s book character. So cute, barely functional. It goes three miles uphill, it doesn’t have any filters. So they have to have their windows down, which means they’re sucking in whatever is on the outside, like chugging up the hill. In the Kincade fire in 2019, it’s transmission is blue. They were really lucky. They were in a spot where they could actually get out and nurse it back away from the fire line. But they were moments away from being in a place where they would have had to bail and hope that there was another engine close enough to hitch a ride out on.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Most Americans would much rather, I mean, I would give up some bombers to have top of the line fire engines Made in America. Right now, a lot are made in Florida. These are made in Cloverdale, I just met that fire engine. That one was 20, 25 years old. We’d love to see top of the line equipment for all of them. I know one of the grants that we did in concert with you was replacing all of the two way radios for the Kenwood Fire Department. Because there’s had melted, so there is no standard. It’s not like, oh, this is the best thing here. Take it as you go, and do this really important work. We do want our firefighters to be able to go home to their families, and we want them to be safe, and we want them to be well when they go home.
Jacqui Jorgeson: So the radios for Kenwood were something that we talked about, but we weren’t able to actually move forward on because they ended up getting a quote back. So this is actually a really good story, I’m going to just share this because it’s another great example. Kenwood Fire, they just recently hired their first paid staff, but they’re predominantly volunteers. They’re also at the epicenter of the majority of these major fires that are ripping through our county, and their radios are so old that they can no longer find spare parts to even patch them up with, and they are not fire rated. So in a structure fire, I want to say that last year, their cords melted, and it cut them off from contact with the incident commander with each other. Can you imagine being inside a burning structure and your line goes dead? So that was something where they reached out and said, hey, I don’t know what’s available at this point. We know you’re a really young organization, but this is what’s going on.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: When I’m upset about it, I want them to come back and ask us because I thought we had solved that. And so I went on with my life, and now that I know it’s not solved–
Jacqui Jorgeson: Because their initial quote was $25,000. And so we, you and I had put together a plan of like, this is doable. I can do matching grants, and then we can go to the community and we had to work sort of like building and building a whole kind of campaign around this Motorola, I believe it was, came back, and they said: “Actually, it’s gonna be over $100,000.” They had to kind of pull the plug on that, and they linked up, I believe they linked up with Chief Akre in Sonoma Valley to try and figure out, okay, maybe we can go in on a grant writer to try and reduce everyone’s costs. And because now you’re in the territory where it’s like, that’s a grant scenario. But yeah, I mean, that’s a classic example of like–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: An unmet need.
Jacqui Jorgeson: An unmet need. And then it’s crazy, because you mentioned that story that any other firefighter from any of these other volunteer fire agencies and they’re like, oh, God, our radios are 20 years old. You ask them point blank, what do you mean? They’ll say nothing. But when you start to kind of poke it with a stick, they’re like, well, yeah, we don’t know if our engine is gonna burn up in the next fire. And we don’t know if our radios will keep working through the next call. But they can’t live their lives like that. That’s not how they’re wired. They look at what’s possible. They look at the task. Remember my first meeting again with Chuck Lee, one of the first things that he said to me was, if you point to a burning house, and you turn around and you ask a volunteer firefighter who has no equipment, no gear, no crew, no water, can you put that fire out? Every one of them will tell you, yes. And they’ll just find a way. Sure, if you sat them down and you force them at gunpoint to come up with a wish list–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Is that what you do? Well, okay, I’d like you to go back to, I believe it’s Chief [inaudible]. I think it’s still Chief [inaudible] in Kenwood, and I would like them to approach us for a grant for at least like 7 to $10,000. One of these things, so this is called How To Disaster. I just want to note that we’ve had a grant program for about three years called The Rise Community Impact Grant Program. The average amount of the grants that we give is about $7,000. And we do firewise communities, we do match duck graze, we do a lot of fuel mitigation, and then unmet needs in these areas. Like I talked about chief Wink asking for these very small tools that really are not that expensive, but this is an example of what, of course, we would provide the seed funding for like $10,000 so that they could at least get all the way to yes. Because now, I can’t sleep because now I know that they don’t have the right radios, and I thought they did this whole time.
Jacqui Jorgeson: It’s a lot to keep track of.
“There is no reason why volunteer firefighters should not have extractors and the food, safety and wellness they need.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I remember Mayacamas, they came to us, and they were like, can we have a grant for cots, and these few things that we need in order to legally stay the night at our fire station up in the Mayacamas Mountains? And we’re like, well, yeah, you sure can? How is it that that is not built into the county’s budgets? I get that those things make me a little bit insane. How is it that in our list of priorities that that’s not top priority to make sure that Kenwood has the right radios. The county can actually afford that. And I don’t care if anybody at the county is listening to this, and they’re like, we can’t. Because I worked with the county and I have a different opinion. That to me, all of those basics should be in there. And that’s just crazy to me. So this is why an organization like yours exists to educate the public on the issue, and also to fill some of those gaps. Jacqui, you know as we’re wrapping up here today, one of the things I’d love for you to do is, could you give us the bullet points for why people should support the Volunteer Fire Foundation? And by doing so, they’re really helping local firefighters. And I do want to say one thing that one of the reasons why we invested time and resources into your model is because we believe it is scalable. And we believe that should be scaled, especially across the American West. But across the nation, we are the wealthiest nation on Earth, and there is no reason why volunteer firefighters should not have extractors, and the food that they need, and the safety and wellness they need. So please go ahead and pull it out why it is that what you’re doing, and why people should support you?
Jacqui Jorgeson: Thank you. So we’ve already touched on some of them, supply kits and impact grants, a grant writer for The bigger ticket items. We have a really robust wellness program. So we partner with local organizations like Sue Farren, First Responders Resiliency, IHAN which is Integrative Healers Action Network, which is a consortium of vetted professional wellness practitioners. So we do things like wellness days, where every three to four months, firefighters come to us over the course of two days and they go through an entire, it’s like a firefighter spa day. We do like everything but the mini petits. They’re getting acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care, nutrition support, naturopathic medicine, which means they’re getting nebulizer breathing treatments for their lungs. They’re getting high dose vitamin C, which is full of antioxidants to help clear some of that crap out of their bodies.
We are on the verge of launching a pilot program with a team of doctors that are experts in Environmental Medicine, and led by a doctor, in fact, whose parents were both wildland firefighters. So for her, this work is very personal. And we’re both about to bring 5 to 10 volunteer firefighters from all different demographics through a full two to three month long treatment program, which we will be tracking data on. So we’ll be testing them before, during and after showing exactly what’s in their systems, and how it’s moving through as they move through treatment. And the idea is to take that data down to our friends at UCSF and Berkeley which collaborated on a study right after Tubbs. And they took 100 firefighters and tested them, and they were like, Congratulations, you’re horribly toxic, sent them a PDF of their test results, and that was it. That was the scope of the whole study. And these are, I mean, many volunteers were part of that study. And so they know that they’ve got mercury, and cadmium and all of this other weird stuff in their bodies, but there was no follow up support.
“Cancer is a common side effect of firefighting, but it sure doesn’t have to be. There are treatments available.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
So we want to be able to collect some data and go down and say like, hey, what do you think about digging a little deeper and doing something that actually moves the needle for these folks? Because cancer is a common side effect of firefighting, but it sure doesn’t have to be. There are treatments available. That’s what we want to prove. And we’re documenting the whole process. So that’s part of it. Like you said before, it’s like people don’t know about this. We know that if the worst day of our lives happened, the thing that would kind of bring us to tears to even think about it. We can call 911 and their red trucks are gonna show up. We have no idea who’s driving it. We don’t know, we don’t care, we’re not thinking about whether they get a pension, we’re not thinking about whether they can support their families on it. We just know that they’re fully trained, and that they will do everything they can for us.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And we know they come running.
“We need our firefighters; we need every single one of them” –Jacqui Jorgenson
Jacqui Jorgeson: And we know they come running every single time. We’ve only said like, look, half of what we do is firefighter facing it’s direct conversations. I’ve been to every single fire agency in this county, more than 40 of them that have Volunteer Fire programs and talk to them, and it’s just the start. It’s all about relationships, and it’s all about ongoing conversation so that I don’t have to hold a gun to their heads anymore. I can just call them and ask them, and they’ll tell me, or even better, they’re coming to me on their own now saying, hey, this possible fire chief reached out half a year ago. I mean, tragically, his lifelong kind of partner in crime, they’re both volunteers and his assistant chief passed away from a heart attack. He’s like, hey, do you guys have a benefit program for the families? And I’m in tears. And I’m like, no, we don’t because we’re not there yet. But one day, we will be. Firefighter facing the other half is facing the public explaining what it is that we’re doing and why we need our firefighters. We need every single one of them. It doesn’t matter if they’re CAL FIRE, doesn’t matter if their career pays the labor back, it doesn’t matter if they’re a volunteer.
Every one of those agencies, they are all bleeding numbers. It’s too much. It’s way too much for them to bear, and we are here kind of like finding who can we [inaudible] who has the least amount of support right now. And so we’re bringing them in mental health support, like I said, teamed up with Sue Ferran from First Responders Resiliency. And so we are now coordinating for our PTSD training with her in every single kind of region around the county. We have our first one next week, we have our next one, second one next month. We are just committed to kind of really supporting them from recruitment to retirement and all of these ways as they define them. And that’s I think, like the most important thing to wrap up on is. This isn’t from the outside, it’s not kind of from my uninformed perspective of making an assumption about what they would probably like, I’m letting them lead. So it’s all about initiating the conversations, and then accommodating them, meeting them where they are.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One of the ways that we are totally aligned with you is that when we go into communities, we may know stuff, but we always say, what do you need, and how can we help? And that’s a good place to start so that we’re not guessing. And I also just want to remind the audience that, every good idea, people are like, somebody should do something. But it does take an actual somebody, someone to actually do it. And it’s difficult, it’s a slog to do a long term recovery. And it’s huge. It’s a small business, essentially, to open up and launch a nonprofit that has to, you’re filing taxes, you have all of these same professional needs and services as a small business, but you are not making a profit. And instead, you are putting all of your energy and resources into your cause. And I don’t think people often think of nonprofits as the same as running a small business, and that it takes a minute to actually get your programs sort of in line, and then proven, and then to have a record of success. And it has to start somewhere. And it has to start with someone. And you have started in that somewhere.
“What’s better for us is for the public to do better for the firefighters who are risking their lives, their health, and their mental well being in order to support our safety. In our darkest moments they always come running, they never decline to do that.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
As someone said, I think I can do this so I’m going to actually do it. And I commend you for that. Because, again, it is very much needed. And firefighters may listen to this and say, well, you know why we can do it, because they’re never gonna say that they can’t. But what we’re really advocating here is for a better, for us is the public to do better for the firefighters who are risking their lives, their health and their mental well being in order to support our safety. And sometimes in our truly darkest moments, they always come running, they never declined to do that. So I commend you for that. And I’m so happy to have you on today, and I actually would love to have you on again in the year to talk about even more of your programs and experiences.
Jacqui Jorgeson: Thank you so much. I would absolutely love that. And I can’t thank you enough just personally for your support, because your organization has backed mine. But you as a human being have backed me. And at the end of the day, I feel like there’s nothing more critical than that. And if there’s one other thing that I could say to your viewers and listeners, we’re not all first responders. We’re not all wired to be that way. And I’ve I’ve watched friends who, and now I’m surrounded by the kinds of people who become activated, and clear, and focused the moment that chaos erupts. And thank God for those humans. But I would also just like to open the aperture a little bit wider for people who don’t fall into that category, I would classify myself as like me the third responder.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We say that we are third responders. Yeah, since the very first moment, I got this job. My very first speaking engagement, we are really third response. That’s why when people are like, I can’t believe that you went to DC during Kincade Fire and I’m like, do you know that we’re not firefighters. Like, we know that that’s not what we do. We really don’t have an impact on the outcome of that fire, and nor would we claim to or want to, because we are not trained to do that. So third responder? I love third responders.
“Let the timing flow, be open to finding your space. There is a room for everyone and a need for everyone to participate. We’re at a critical point in human evolution where we don’t have the luxury of waiting for everyone else to solve the problems. We have to do this together.” –Jacqui Jorgenson
Jacqui Jorgeson: It is a question of like, what is mine to do? And for me, honestly, I felt bad about myself because I thought, well, I should be doing more. But to tell you the truth, disaster is inherently traumatic. And I’ve come to understand that we all process trauma differently. And my process is, I am deeply profoundly affected. It affects me emotionally, and that’s not a sign of weakness. That’s just my processing system. Because a lot of first responders act first processable leader. And sometimes, they pay a real price depending on how delayed that processing is. But it always comes up eventually. And for me, I realized, okay, my processing is in the moment. And then with a little time, space and clarity, that’s when I become activated. It took me a year to find my place with this. And it took probably a year before that to think, wow, there’s a need here. Someone should really do something about that. So there were stages of the evolution of this organization. And I would encourage anyone listening who wonders, who asked themselves that question, what is mine to do? And all of this, if you’re asking the question, it’s because you recognize that we all have a part to play and you know that that includes you. And so it’s just let the timing flow be open to finding your space because there is a room for everyone, and a need for everyone to participate. We’re at that critical point in human evolution where it’s like we don’t have the luxury of waiting for everyone else to solve the problems. We get to do this together.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s actually the only way that we’re ever going to make it through is together which is why we have to support each other. And that means that we have to help the helpers, and we have to ensure that whatever we can do to make their experience more comfortable, less traumatic, and that they have at least all the tools that they need. Praises are great, and they’re wonderful, and I applaud them. Also there is the, you try to hear wise, a firefighter, well that was that was my job. I think that what they’re saying is, this is my translator, a firefighter, they’re saying, thank you. I appreciate your gratitude, but it is their job, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t make that job a little bit easier to do and a little healthier. And so thank you so much for being on the podcast today, Jacqui, I appreciate you as a colleague. Congratulations actually on really launching and doing something important in the world. I like it.
Jacqui Jorgeson: Thank you so much. And I really invite anyone to reach out with any questions or check us down at the website, and we’ve got all kinds of information and resources there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Is there a general email that you would like to promote?
Jacqui Jorgeson: [email protected]
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yes, great. Okay. All right. Thank you again. Once again, this has been the podcast, How To Disaster, we talk about how to recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson and I am the CEO of After The Fire.