La Vista's volunteer firefighters answer last calls after decision to outsource work to Papillion

Assistant Chief Adam Vail, left, and Rescue Capt. Steve Leighton, who have a combined 14 years of service to the La Vista Volunteer Fire Department, face the end of an era of service after the city decided to outsource its fire protection to the paid Papillion Fire Department. Some of La Vista's 58 volunteers may get hired by the Papillion force.

Last year, La Vista volunteer firefighters celebrated their organization's 50th anniversary, a testament to men and women who wake up in the middle of the night to fight fires or ride ambulances for no compensation, save the heartfelt thanks of homeowners and the pride that results from serving a community.

Next spring, members of the La Vista Fire and Rescue Department will mark a different kind of milestone: the end of that volunteer tradition.

Starting April 1, Papillion's paid, career Fire Department will take over fire service in La Vista, replacing a volunteer department that officials said could no longer handle the growing city's emergency call volume.

Votes by the La Vista and Papillion City Councils and the Papillion Rural Fire Protection District board earlier this month prompted little discussion. Since officials announced they were studying the move in March, the change has seemed all but inevitable.

But for many of the department's 58 volunteers, the decision still stings, even if they understand the reasoning behind it.

“There's a huge shock value to it, and there's a sense of losing something you've been a part of,” Assistant Chief Adam Vail said. “You don't get to dictate your end date. It gets told to you.”

The takeover presents opportunity, too. Papillion will hire an additional 12 firefighters to cover the expanded area, giving La Vista's young volunteers — many are under 30 — a shot at a full-time, paid firefighting career.

Papillion opened up a second civil service test in March to give them a chance to apply for a spot on the bigger force. Of the 22 volunteers who applied, 10 scored high enough to place on the hiring list's top 40.

For others like Vail and rescue Capt. Steve Leighton, who have a combined 14 years with the department, an era of voluntarism is drawing to a close.

Vail works as a Sarpy County Sheriff's Office deputy. Leighton is a full-time dispatcher for Douglas County. Neither is looking for a career change.

And so they, along with several of their fellow volunteers, will simply phase out this aspect of their lives come April 1.

“It's obviously a passion, and you're sad to see it end,” Leighton said. “That's going to be the hard part of it for me. But at the same time, I try and find the positive. I see it as I'll have more time to work around the house and work on my wife's honey-do list that's longer than it's ever been.”

Vail said it cuts both ways — the end comes as a loss and a welcome break from a hectic and sometimes dangerous side job.

“I think my family will appreciate it, because I won't be walking out on dinners or Christmas,” Vail said. “I don't know how many Christmases I've left food sitting on the table. But the bottom line is, I love doing this. I'm going to miss it tremendously.”

Firefighters could join departments in cities that still rely on volunteers, such as Ralston, Springfield, Gretna and Valley.

“At first I was gung-ho about trying to find another department,” Vail said. “But I have a daughter now, I'm getting married. I need to focus on this and see this through. Maybe it's time to take a break.”

Not everyone is so accepting. La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig conceded from the start that many volunteers were angry and blindsided by the decision to explore contracting with Papillion. Some feel the decision was rushed through with little input from or consideration for the volunteers.

In public, city officials have taken great pains to stress that the decision was not an attack on volunteers or their firefighting abilities.

“The volunteers we've had have been just fantastic,” Kindig said. “This is nothing against them. We're strictly doing it because it's just too hard to keep our volunteer numbers up.”

Papillion Fire Chief Bill Bowes said his crew understands a somewhat uncomfortable transition lies ahead.

“We don't want to be looked at as the bad guys in their eyes,” he said. “It's not a hostile takeover. We've tried to be very sensitive to that.”

City officials have maintained the numbers simply weren't there, pointing to statistics that showed emergency calls increasing by 153 percent over the past 10 years. Volunteer numbers, however, remained fixed, and response times creeped upward.

“There's a downside to being volunteer,” Vail said. “There are days nobody will show up.

I don't think it's an issue of we're not doing our job. The city wants to provide that guarantee to the citizens of La Vista: That on any given day, no matter the hour, there will be a rescue squad or engine leaving one of these stations.”

Nationwide, the majority of fire departments remain volunteer. But volunteers are growing older, and locally, cultural and economic shifts are blamed for thinning the ranks.

In La Vista, known for its rigorous training standards, volunteers have left for paid firefighting jobs in Bellevue, Papillion and Omaha. Others gave up volunteering to take on a second job or devote more time to their families.

“When the economy went down, how can you justify volunteering when I can go do the same job, with the same amount of requirements and get paid to do it?” Vail said.

To keep numbers up through the transition period, starting Oct. 1 La Vista will begin paying its volunteers on a part-time basis. The city will pay volunteers $10 per hour to staff three shifts per day and two assistant chiefs $1,000 per month to handle scheduling and payroll.

Vail and Leighton said no volunteers have quit expressly because of the Papillion outsourcing. Residents don't have to worry about spiteful volunteers.

“Until that date, we're going to be around,” Vail said. “You don't have to worry about if the calls or going to get answered or not. We'll get somebody there, no matter what.”

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