When Wayne Austen first started as a volunteer for the Canby Fire District, things looked a little different.
The year was 1970. The district had 15 firefighters — none of whom were actually paid to fight fires. Only the chief drew a salary — and a fairly nominal one at that.
When there was a fire in Canby, calls went out to the town’s 15 “fire phones” (no, not that one) — which were designed to do two things: answer emergency calls, and ring the town’s siren.
“It had a button on it,” Austen said. “And when a call came into 911, 15 phones would ring. And so it was up to somebody to answer the phone and find out what the problem was.”
The veteran volunteers didn’t necessarily rush to the phone. Instead, they headed straight to the station.
“The one who answered the call also had to push the button for the siren,” Austen explained. “And they knew that if you said, ‘Fire department,’ you probably weren’t going to make an engine, because they’d all be full by the time you got there.”
Austen, who is now the volunteer division chief, was recognized this month for his incredible 50 years of volunteer service — a record for the Canby Fire District — including a plaque that was presented to him during the Canby Fire Board’s regular meeting Wednesday.
“Wayne, our community owes you a debt of gratitude [for] the selfless acts of kindness and firefighting time you have spent within our community and neighboring districts,” Canby Fire said in a Facebook post.
Austen joined the service after a trip out riding motorcycles with his friend, Bob Workman, who was a volunteer firefighter. Around the campfire that night, he’d asked if Austen might like to sign up.
“I thought about it, and I just said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a great idea,'” he recalled. “That next Thursday, I came down to the fire station, and that started the whole thing off.
At the time, he was working as a mechanic at Ritter’s Body Shop on South Ivy Street, which was located about a half-block from the fire district’s headquarters.
“I made a deal with my boss, that I would just make sure I had things done in case we had a fire or something,” he said. “I’d drop what I was doing, head out the back door, and away we’d go. It worked out real well.”
Within a year, he had started his own garage, Austen’s Body Shop. Once he was in charge, the volunteer arrangement worked even better.
Fifty years ago, most volunteer firefighters were business owners — like Austen.
“People in town knew if the siren went off, there’d be a lot of businesses that were locked up because they were going to the alarms,” he said. “In those days, you could do that and get away with it. Now, if you were to lock your business and head to a fire, you’d probably have customers that weren’t happy.”
Austen gives the example of two of his current volunteer firefighters who drive garbage trucks for Canby Disposal.
“They can’t just park them here [at the fire station] and take off,” Austen said. “You’d have 100 people calling and asking why the garbage man isn’t here. So, that is really what forced the change from volunteers to districts having to take on more paid people.”
The district has also grown dramatically — which has brought higher tax revenues but also greatly increased calls for service.
“Calls going on all day long,” Austen said. “Before, we’d have a call every now and then. And we knew, if we didn’t go down to the station, the ambulance or fire engine wouldn’t be going out. We had to go — because if we didn’t go, no one was going.”
The makeup of the workforce has changed — as have the locations at which they work. When Austen started, most people worked in town or very nearby. Today, three-quarters of working adults commute outside of the city — 65% of them in Portland.
As a result, the profile of your typical volunteer firefighter has changed dramatically. They are typically young and interested in firefighting as a career — and see a stint as a volunteer firefighter as a first step on that journey.
“To get an honest-to-goodness person who says, ‘I’m an electrician, I’m going to be an electrician all my life, but I want to be a volunteer’ is very difficult now,” he said.
The training and classes required to become a volunteer firefighter are no small commitment, and it is increasingly more challenging for young, working men and women — especially those with spouses and families — to fit it into their busy lives.
“Every kid’s got something going on, mom and dad are running all over the place,” he said. “It’s really tough to do this, anymore. It really is.”
All told, things have gotten better over the years. The technology is vastly improved, Austen believes, and he’s extremely proud of the Canby Fire District and the service it provides to the community.
There is one thing he misses, though: Jumping on the tailboard.
“That was always fun,” he said. “You know, you’d run, and if there was room, you’d jump on the back, and the guys would hold onto you. And you’d charge off — whether it was raining, snowing, sleet, sunshine, blowing, whatever. That was always kind of fun.”