A new era in Rainbow: No more volunteer fire force
Last updated 1/14/2021 at 2:20pm
The month of January marks a historic shift for the community of Rainbow – the Rainbow Fire Station, operated by volunteer firefighters for decades, will now be entirely run by full-time North County Fire Protection District personnel for the first time.
The Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department was first formed in 1967, and while it merged with North County Fire in 1987, it has continued to be run as a separate volunteer force under the oversight of the larger fire district until now.
While some of the existing volunteers have accepted positions with North County Fire as emergency medical technicians, there are no longer any volunteer firefighters responding to calls in the area, NCFPD spokesman Capt. John Choi told Village News.
Two past chiefs at the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department described an organization that was beloved and an important part of their lives, though they said the transition to a full-time paid force from North County Fire was long coming, and indeed, the loss of the volunteer firefighting force is bittersweet.
"I hate to see the energy of the volunteer fire department go," former Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bruce Fried, who retired in 2013, said in an interview with Village News. "I think the community has an affinity for its volunteer fire department as I did. But times do change. I like having people at the station all of the time. Makes the response times quicker. I like having paramedics there all the time. It makes medical coverage better. So while I really do empathize with the volunteer fire department going away, it was a piece of my life for so many years, it's a good thing."
Rick Moramarco, who took over as chief after Fried's retirement and said he stepped down shortly before he left the Rainbow Fire Station for good in 2017, said the shift away from a volunteer force was already starting during his tenure as chief.
"I remember at one time when I was still chief and they first put a couple of paid guys out there, I was explaining to my board that it was kind of something that was going to happen," Moramarco said. "We were having trouble keeping people there, and it ended up almost being all guys that lived somewhere else (who worked at Rainbow's station) to put on a résumé"
Both men served on the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department for decades – Fried joined in 1984, and Moramarco said he started not long after his family moved to Rainbow in 1975.
Fried said he had been living in Rainbow about two years when he came across the fire chief at the time, who was looking for new volunteers.
"One of the old fire chiefs, Fred Buck, had a fire engine parked over by Vallecitos School out here, I think I was walking back from taking my kids to school and it had a sign on there, 'volunteers needed,'" Fried said. And I asked him about it and I said, 'I don't know anything about this' and he said 'we'll train you.'"
Fried said he was in his 30s when he joined the volunteer fire department – a bit later than typical. Moramarco started much younger; he was just 18, having graduated from high school not long before his family's move to Rainbow.
"I was actually riding my bike down the street one evening and the chief at the time was doing a drill on the then-empty lot where the station was at the time," Moramarco said. "I was talking to him and he was looking to get some younger people on the department."
And the rest is history. Mormarco said he believes he was the longest-ever-serving volunteer firefighter in Rainbow by the time he left in 2017, and he even remains one to this day – he is now a volunteer firefighter in Scottsburg, Oregon, where he relocated after retiring.
Volunteers were, of course, not paid. To make his living, Fried said he had his own bookkeeping business in town during his early years on the fire department, which allowed him to quickly respond to calls.
"Basically all of the volunteers lived in Rainbow (at the time I started)," Fried said. "I had my own little business so I worked in Rainbow, too, as did a few other people. I would respond to every single call and at night when people came home from work we would get more."
He said back at that time, an alarm in his house would alert him to calls.
"The original old ones they had back in the day, there was no way they slept through those things," Fried said.
In later times, a siren similar to an air raid klaxon which could be heard across Rainbow would alert firefighters, he said.
Fried said he took EMT classes that later allowed him to become a member of reserve personnel at what was then called the Fallbrook Fire Protection District (the district would be renamed North County Fire Protection District after the consolidation with Rainbow in 1987), and also was able to become an EMT instructor at Palomar College, starting as a part-timer in 1989 and working full-time from 1991 until 2011.
Moramarco said after working as a volunteer in Rainbow for years, he was able to get a position as an engineer with North County Fire, where he stayed full-time for 24 years. That didn't mean he wasn't spending plenty of time in Rainbow, too, though.
"Even after I moved out of Rainbow, I would go down on my days off," Moramarco said.
He was Fried's assistant chief prior to Fried's retirement.
Working for a volunteer force did, of course, come with sacrifices.
"I would miss a couple of Christmas mornings," Fried said. "When I was working at North County you go to the station and you're paid to do that. I think it's a thing that volunteers doing it for really no monetary compensation and just the good of the community."
Fried said his family understood, though – his wife was a 911 dispatcher for North County Fire, and he now has one son each working for the Vista and Poway fire departments.
"They used to say you couldn't go around North County and throw a cat without hitting a Fried," he said.
And despite whatever sacrifices there may be, Moramarco still does not have it in him to get out of the fire service.
"I guess you'd say it gets in your blood, kind of thing," Moramarco said. "I'm the type of person that if I do something, something I like, I keep doing it, so if I do something that it turns out I like doing, kind of got my foot in the door at 17, it kind of became my life. I think my wife even wishes I didn't sometimes."
He said he enjoyed working as a firefighter for so long because of the feeling of being around to assist others in the community.
"I pretty much enjoy helping people," Moramarco said.
Much as they both said they loved working for the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department, both Moramarco and Fried said it was not unforeseen that full-time North County firefighters would eventually take charge – and as far back as 2006, an article in The Californian detailed the Rainbow station's need for more volunteers, particularly local ones.
"Since they weren't locals on the department, having someone to man the station ended up being kind of troublesome," Moramarco told Village News.
High turnover became a problem, too, as many of the volunteer firefighters were looking to move on to paid firefighting positions elsewhere.
"Because Rainbow had so few volunteers that actually lived in Rainbow anymore, we used a lot of out of district guys the last few years, and a lot of my students came to work out here in Rainbow, and then they wanted jobs..." Fried said. "When you lose your community base, it's tough."
And many volunteer fire departments in California have long had problems ever since volunteers became required to meet the same training standards as professionals in 2004.
"Every place that has volunteers kind of has trouble getting enough," Moramarco said. "It's kind of a national thing, people just don't have the time."
Fried, who still lives in Rainbow, said the volunteer fire department will always be important to him, and he hopes the volunteers are not forgotten.
"I was out here so many years, I had so many good calls. I remember the first baby I helped deliver, I remember the first kid I helped save," Fried said. "I just think the volunteers did a really great thing. I hate to think of them being forgotten."
They won't soon be.
"We are grateful for all the years of service provided by our Rainbow Volunteer Firefighters and will never forget the contributions made by these faithful public servants," North County Fire said in a statement Jan. 6. "It will be an honor to carry the torch and provide this new level of service to this community."
Will Fritz can be reached by email at [email protected]