EMT Tamar Smith leads a hands-on response training at the CVFD fire hall on June, 25, 2023. Photo by Kinsey Brown for The Cordova Times

A recent lack of certified emergency responders at the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) is causing concern among department leaders.  

That’s according to a letter from the department to the Cordova City Council this week, wherein leaders are urging council members to approve a $90,000 increase to the department for emergency response services, including emergency medical technicians (EMTs).   

In the letter, department heads detail how CVFD has lost 12 members on the week’s on-call schedule. The department currently has 23 volunteers, 13 of which are cross trained as firefighter/medics. On average, CVFD reports that the department responds to 170 calls per year.  

The CVFD was started in 1904 as a joint volunteer department with the police in Cordova, according to Paul Trumblee, the current deputy fire chief. He said the department has grown steadily along with the city and in the 90s it became clear that full-time staff was required to serve the needs of the community. In response, the city created fire marshal positions to lead the department and its volunteers.  

But even so, the CVFD has always relied heavily on volunteer efforts from community members who are trained as EMTs. Trumblee said that in recent years the list of volunteer members has shrunk to half the size it was in 2012 — which was 25 people — and in 2022, the CVFD petitioned the city to add a third paid full-time position, as well as two temporary medic employees for the summer.  

Trumblee said that the addition of a third full-time position was needed to account for the amount of calls the department was responding to. According to Trumblee, the lack of volunteers began to take its toll on the department. 


“People were getting burned out,” he said in an interview with The Cordova Times.  

In order to operate effectively, Trumblee said, the department has two medics on call at all times. Even with the addition of this position, though, he said the schedule of on-call volunteers is stretched thin.  

The CVFD is undergoing efforts to recruit new and potential volunteers to serve as medics. The department offers a free EMT certification training in exchange for graduates of the program serving one year on call. In-house trainings are typically held in January through March, but the department is considering opening up more spring training to attract seasonal volunteers for the summer.  

Trumblee says that the department is hoping to get more year-round volunteer members in the 25- to 35-year-old-age range by being as adaptable as possible with the schedule.  

“We understand if people live out of town or have children so we try to work it out so they can work nights,” he said. “We’re trying to be flexible.”  

Trumblee says that the challenge with scheduling is that flexibility requires an adequate volunteer roster. The CVFD has held several open houses to try and communicate opportunities with the community and welcome potential volunteers into the department. Their most recent open house was on Saturday, Nov. 11, during which he said two applicants expressed interest.  

Trumblee said that each year the department lacks new volunteers is also a year that the overall level of experience in the department wanes.  

“We are losing the experience,” he said of the volunteer roster, pointing to the fact that currently only 25% of the people on it have at least 10 years of experience.  

According to Trumblee, in 2012 the CVFD had the largest volunteer fire department in the state of Alaska, as well as the largest female medic roster at 25 participants. He says that having well-trained and experienced EMTs is of vital importance to a rural community.  

“It’s important to have because it provides the first response care that people need,” he said. “If you don’t have volunteers or paid staff, it’s a very serious situation because it can result in lack of response.”    

For the current volunteers and paid staff filling the on-call schedule, the mental strain of overwork is creating an issue. Trumblee says burnout is not only a response time issue but a mental health issue for responders themselves as well.  

“When we are short staffed it puts a mental strain on our volunteers and we’re seeing burnout,” he said.  

Trumbless says that this can create a snowball effect where overworked volunteers quit, leaving even larger gaps in the schedule. The department’s few employees are contractually able to only work certain hours as well, which compounds the issue.  

“The paid staff can only cover so much of the schedule as well,” he said.   

Low volunteer EMT numbers is not an issue isolated to Cordova. Trumblee says that he has communicated with other departments of similar size all over the state who are experiencing a similar trend.  

“Everybody is seeing a trend. It’s nationwide,” he said.  

Valdez, just north of Cordova with a population of 3,776, employs 11 on-call personnel, and Unalaska, population 4,376, employs three, according to Trumblee’s own research. North Pole, which has a population of about 2,117, has responded to this issue by employing 18 full-time and 15 part-time firefighters/medics.  

In the letter to the City Council, which is written by Cordova’s current volunteer fire chief Robert Mattson, the department offers several suggestions for supporting emergency services in Cordova — one of which would be contracting out response services. Another option that reflects efforts of other similar size departments would be to pay on-call personnel $60 per 12-hour shift. The letter was included in the council packet on Wednesday.  

Trumblee says that if the trend of losing volunteer on-call personnel isn’t reversed soon, the department may end up costing the city more financially in the long run.  

“If we don’t have volunteers to help out, I see a bad trend going on where we won’t have a volunteer fire department at all,” he said. “That will cost the taxpayers more.”   

Trumblee and other members of the CVFD are encouraging community members to reach out to anyone in the department for more information on volunteering if they have interest. Fire hall meetings are open to community members each Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in the fire hall. Trumblee says that while the department encourages everyone to become EMT certified there is a place for anyone who has a heart for helping their fellow neighbors.  

“We always have a position for everybody,” he said. “Whether it’s as a medic, search and rescue, or firefighter.”  

This story originally ran in the Nov. 17, 2023 issue of The Cordova Times.