Chris Rust

Toledo Schools Superintendent Lends Hand as Volunteer at Fire District

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

As fire districts in Lewis County and beyond continue to struggle to attract volunteers, Lewis County Fire District 2 in Toledo has recently seen an influx in applicants, including Toledo School District Superintendent Chris Rust.

“I just believe we’re all in this together … and if you’re not pitching in, you should be,” he said. 

Fire District 2 Chief Mike Dorothy said the district has about six new volunteers since a recruitment effort early this year, and at least two more applications are pending. 

 “We’re always taking people,” he said. 

Rust moved to Toledo about two years ago to take over as the district’s superintendent. 

“We found a place to live out in the country, about 8 miles out of town,” he said. 

After moving in, Rust learned his neighbor was the only volunteer firefighter in the area served by the Fire District’s Station 3. 

The neighbor asked if Rust would consider joining so the two could work as a team to retrieve the station’s fire truck and respond to fires. At first Rust wasn’t sure that, at 60, he could do the work. 

However, after hearing the requirements and his options as a volunteer, he realized he was wrong.

“I said, ‘Shoot, I can do that,’” he said. 

Fire Districts all over the county rely on volunteers to respond to fires and other emergencies, but are struggling to recruit, said Gregg Peterson, president of the Lewis County Fire Chiefs Association. For most fires, agencies must call out other districts through mutual aid agreements. 

“We can usually muster a sufficient number of firefighters to handle a single event but we can be very stressed to handle a second simultaneous call, which for some reason has happened more in recent years,” Peterson wrote in an email to The Chronicle

Rust said he is unable to respond to calls during school days, but other than that, said he hasn’t found it difficult to balance his duties as a volunteer firefighter — including regular training and minimum requirements for time spent on calls — with the rest of his life. 

“A lot of it is how much am I comfortable doing,” he said. “If anything, I wish I could go on more calls.”

This week, Rust recalled his first structure fire in Winlock, which didn’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped. 

“I was still learning to put on my gear, my boots didn’t fit right … my goggles fogged up,” he said. 

After months of practice, the work is much more natural now, he said. Every time he goes out to training or a real call, he tries to learn something new from the many firefighters who have volunteered with the department for 20 or more years. 

“Every call I’ve gone on, every training I’ve gone to, every conversation I’ve had with the old-timers, I learn something new,” he said. “The people are just wonderful people. They’re great folks and they have amazing stories.”

While Toledo has seen a recent spike in volunteers, numbers at other districts are still low. That worries Peterson as the county experiences a heat wave and high fire danger.

“It is alarming how many of the fire stations have signs out front saying ‘Volunteer Firefighters Needed.’ There seems to be less interest in becoming a volunteer firefighter or EMT in the past several years. I have no particular idea as to why this is,” Peterson wrote to The Chronicle. “Whatever the reason, we as a community need to figure this out as our numbers a falling while the average member age is increasing and that is a bad sign in a job that requires strong physical exertion.”

Rust has longtime firefighters in his family, and had thought about volunteering before moving to Toledo, but said he always worried he was too old or out of shape to get involved.

“I figured I was probably right,” he said. 

However, it took volunteering for Toledo to prove him wrong. 

“My mantra is I’m just here to be helpful,” he said. “There’s people who have more skill and training. I’m happy to help.”