Andrew Byron, a volunteer lieutenant for Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, recently gave KHOL a tour of Firehouse 3 in Hoback. Before he even walked in the door, a major problem for the facility became obvious.
“The rescue truck is, if you drove it straight, you’d plow the building out,” Byron explained. “So, we have some major, major size issues as this county has grown.”
Once inside, vehicles for fighting structure fires and wildland blazes and performing swift water rescues are packed into the station like sardines. That means that when there’s a call, responders have to play a game of Tetris just to get the right equipment out the door.
“Imagine six or seven firefighters trying to hop on a truck [or] in a car with all the gear on. It gets tough,” Byron said. “It’s crazy to say, but sadly there’s a lot of firefighter injuries with backing trucks into stations, and that gets very challenging.”
Hoback is the southern-most fire station in Teton County and entirely volunteer-run. Byron’s on-call basically 24/7 in addition to his duties as a business owner and father. He’s also running for elected office, and he brings his passion for public service and sacrifice into his volunteer work.
“One of my biggest structure fire calls was about four Christmases ago,” he said. “We were just sitting down and it was called in and that was about probably 7 or 8 [o’clock] at night. [I] went on the call and I walked back in and wrapped a few presents at 6 a.m. before the family started waking up. And that was my Christmas Eve. And that’s a pretty common story for a lot of firefighters.”
Making the work even harder, Byron said the station is struggling to recruit new volunteers because of the rising costs of housing in Teton County. Not many people have the time to serve when they’re also often working multiple jobs just to afford to live here.
“Lockers. You can see there’s a lot of empty ones,” Byron said during the tour. “Basically half of them are full.”
As a result, one out of three calls dispatched to the Hoback Fire Station over the past 18 months has not gotten a local response, according to recent testimony from the Hoback Volunteer Firefighters Association. Another 20% have gotten just a one-person response, which is well-below national standards. That means other stations are picking up the slack and driving 30 minutes or more to respond to what could be an emergency situation.
Meanwhile, some parts of the Hoback building itself just aren’t up to par with federal safety measures. For example, there’s not a dryer in the facility or gendered bathrooms. The gear lockers are also right next to the exhaust pipes of fire trucks.
“When I start this fire engine, diesel particulates come out and end up all over my gear,” Byron said.
Firefighters are more likely to get a cancer diagnosis and to die from cancer than the general population, and the prevalence of carcinogens in their work is a major reason for that. Moreover, families of firefighters also face an increased risk of cancer.
The Hoback Fire Station has already been identified at least twice in the past 30 year as being in need of replacement: Once in 1993 and again in 2012. Brady Hansen is fire chief of Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, and he said that, while the building functions now, a major weather event could be catastrophic.
“Every day that we keep going, the more vulnerable [situations] we create or the more vulnerable our scenario is,” Hansen said. “Our concern is when we do get that 50-year winter storm or even a 20-year winter storm. Where we get not even the big earthquake, just an earthquake, will the doors go up?”
That’s why this year, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS is asking for $11 million in Specific Purpose Excise Tax (SPET) funding from the public to replace the stations in both Hoback and Wilson, which is facing similar problems. Hansen said volunteer-run stations, which take in smaller call volumes but serve large areas, are critical local infrastructure.
“With those key, key emergency services, when you’re talking about your fire protection or ambulance service or expand that to law enforcement, we have to be able to perform all of the time,” he said. “We can’t wait for it to break and then decide it’s time to fix it.”
As of early June, the Hoback station had responded to about 30 incidents this year, but Byron is expecting increased demand with the growth of recreational use and residents in his region. Indeed, the entire Jackson Hole Fire/EMS system has seen a 50% increase in call volume over just the past five years.
“The sky is not falling. But I would say we’re at a situation, a breaking point, where unfortunately we’re one event that we miss away from having, you know, some major complications and some major results that we don’t want to see as as first responders,” Byron said.
Moving forward, the Hoback Volunteer Firefighters Association said they expect to see SPET proposals to improve fire infrastructure throughout Teton County for at least the next five or six election cycles–even if this first $11 million request succeeds. Volunteer housing attached to stations, they say, will also be a major part of any long-term infrastructure planning.
Firehouse 1 in downtown Jackson recently reopened following renovations paid for by the taxpayers.