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UCFD #1 Hot Seat: Eldon Marcum

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It’s time for the fourteenth edition of the UCFD #1 Hot Seat. The Hot Seat provides a brief snapshot sharing the story of a highly committed and dedicated staff member. This month we are telling the story of a hard working and dedicated staff member.

It is with great pleasure UCFD #1 introduces to you; Eldon Marcum. Marcum was born in Nyssa, OR, and moved to Stanfield, OR with his family when he was four years old. Since then, he has lived in Stanfield his entire life. While growing up, Marcum never had  that burning desire to work at a fire department, it kind of just happened. It’s nothing out of the ordinary to lend a helping hand when living in a small town, and that’s just what Marcum did. There was a house on fire near the old Stanfield High School in the spring of 1973 and Marcum headed down there to help in anyway he could. “Chief Jim Whelan had joined the fire department and it was all volunteer at that time. I wasn’t up to anything so I just went down and started helping with the fire. That was my first experience with the fire service,” recalled Marcum. “If I was gonna be getting up in the middle of the night to go help them out I might as well be a part of the team,” he added. Marcum decided to join the Stanfield Fire Department following the house fire and he never looked back. Fast forward to 2016 when Stanfield Fire Department merged with Hermiston Fire and Emergency Services to create Umatilla County Fire District #1. “Some of our guys were opposed to the merger. Their theory was that we were going to become part of a career department and pretty quick, they’re gonna run us out and they won’t need us anymore. I never could see it that way because the District didn’t have the funds to hire enough people to run that. I thought it was a good merger,” said Marcum. Marcum was voted to be the Vice President for the UCFD #1 Volunteer Firefighter Association and was also appointed as Assistant Chief in 1985 when Jim Whelan was Fire Chief. He’s been on the Fire District’s Board of Directors for 43 years too. Back when Eldon came aboard at SFD he wasn’t just the only Marcum to join the fire service, all three of his brothers decided to join too. One of his younger brothers, Dean Marcum, was a volunteer at SFD for 35 years. That’s just 14 years short of Eldon’s time in the fire service. This April will mark Eldon’s 50th year of being a volunteer firefighter.

However, less people volunteer now than they did back then. SFD and departments all around the country have had a decline in volunteering numbers for decades now. In January of 2022, the National Volunteer Fire Council shared data that showed the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased from 884,600 in 1985 to 682,000 today. This has become a huge problem for all fire departments. With that being said, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that the employment of career firefighters is projected to grow 8% from 2020 to 2030, which is as fast as the average for all occupations. More and more people are finding careers in firefighting, instead of volunteering. “Back then a lot of the older guys were retiring from the department and it was hard to get volunteers to come in, but nothing like it is now. When I was coming up in the fire service there wasn’t that time commitment that you have now and people were more willing to give up a little bit of time to come out and help. Now there’s so much time you have to put into the training so you can stay certified in order to respond to incidents. It’s just a fact that volunteering in this nation is shrinking all the time. Now our fire department or neighboring departments hire our volunteers out from under us,” exclaimed Marcum. 

Despite losing volunteers, Marcum has been at the forefront of creating a path for those who want to have a career in the fire service for years now. Back in 2000 the Superintendent of Stanfield School District and Marcum went to Eugene, OR to attend a weekend of classes that would allow SFD to start a junior firefighter program. With the help of a grant for class materials and Fire Chief Jim Whelan, Marcum recruited students from both Stanfield and Hermiston for the program. “One of my proudest moments while volunteering over the years is when we started the junior firefighter program. Corey Gorham, JW Roberts, Tim Miears, Joe Whelan and many others were in that class. We taught the class for two or three years and had four or five of the people that went through our class become officers at a department. That makes me feel good that we were able to keep ‘em in emergency services and that they learned enough from this class,” recalled Marcum. “They had no knowledge at all for what they were getting into, but I wish we could actually get kids interested again,” he added. Both Corey Gorham and JW Roberts are both now Battalion Chiefs at Umatilla County Fire District #1. Back when Marcum first started volunteering it wasn’t really an option to become a career firefighter. “I wouldn’t have got hired on as a fireman, but I liked the volunteer part of it,” said Marcum. Back in the 70’s and 80’s the call volume for SFD was around 50 or 60 calls a year, with a rate of $5 per call. “You definitely were doing it as a volunteer because there was no money in it,” Marcum explained. Now UCFD #1 volunteers make an hourly wage based on their certifications when responding to calls. In 2021 UCFD #1’s call volume was 5,611 calls, which is a 12.28% increase from 2020. 

Nevertheless, Marcum was working for Chief Whelan at his hardware store in Stanfield before making a career change. In 1975 Marcum got married to his wife who had a daughter.  During this time he wanted to find a better job to sustain a better life for the three of them. He decided to end his time working at Whelan’s hardware store in the spring of 1977 and got job with the Union Pacific Railroad at the Hinkle Yard. Marcum was initially hired on as a laborer in the engine house. “Then in November of that year, I got rehired by the railroad in the transportation department and got into engine service. So I worked for the railroad for 35 years, 33 years as an engineer,” said Marcum. While working as an engineer Marcum also maintained a farm where he mostly farmed alfalfa, some cattle, and pigs too. “I was busy to say the least,” mentioned Marcum. Now, Marcum is a prominent face amongst the communities in Stanfield and Hermiston. He is mostly famous for his involvement within the community and his baked beans. “I have no secrets for my baked bean recipe, I’ll give it to anybody! Just cause that way they can make their own. I probably make 25 gallons of bake beans a year or something like that, I enjoy doing it. It’s fun. And people like them,” exclaimed Marcum. Night and day, he is always there to lend a hand even after doing it for 49 years straight. When Marcum was asked what he does with his free time his response was, “I don’t do much of anything except volunteer. I come down here to Station 24 pretty often. Yesterday I worked on putting flags together to put out on main street. Actually, the fire department has been doing it since before I joined the department in 1973,” said Marcum. When he isn’t volunteering he enjoys spending time with family. Marcum has four daughters and four grandkids, one of which is working in the fire service at Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue in the Dalles, OR.

If anyone in the community is interested in becoming a volunteer at Umatilla County Fire District #1 Eldon encourages you to come to any of our stations to chat with us about volunteer opportunities or go online and fill out an application. “Come and talk to us if you see us around town and if you are interested I’d encourage you to go over to Station 21 where you can fill out an application and talk to the Fire Chief. Also if people are interested they can get set up for a ride along on the truck or the ambulance for a day to see if they like it before making the commitment,” said Marcum. “I see a lot of younger people that live really close to the station that I’d like to see just come out and check it out and see if maybe it wouldn’t be a fit. It’s been real rewarding for me to help our community during the last 49 years. You kind of get known by the people in the area because they see you on fires or see you down here training. It feels good,” he added.

It is our goal to bring the community closer with our District by telling the stories of the men and women who represent Umatilla County Fire District #1. It’s better to meet them, before you need them.