By SHELDON BERMONT/ Petaluma Correspondent
As you drive through unincorporated Two Rock on the way to the coast, it’s easy to miss the fire station at 7618 Valley Ford Road. It’s a plain one-story wooden structure that looks more like a farm building than a traditional firehouse.
From that unassuming base, volunteer firefighters have been answering calls for help with fires, accidents and medical emergencies since 1927, Yet without new blood and an active social media campaign, Two Rock Volunteer Department might have gone out of business in 2005.
The station’s volunteers had dwindled from 19 to 4, many forced by the economic crisis to move away in search of jobs. In response to the dwindling number of training hours, the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department suspended Two Rock’s contract.
Using Facebook, Twitter and a customized website, boosters were able to breathe life into the station, which now boasts 14 volunteers.
“It was a community effort to get the fire department started again. People just didn’t want to see this tradition fade away,” said Lori Anello, who was appointed fire chief in 2006.
Without it, Two Rock residents would be forced to rely on surrounding departments for help, increasing the response time to any incident.
Ken Ronshausen, 54, was new to the area in 2004 when he received a simple one-page newsletter outlining the fire department’s woes. He remembers thinking, “Maybe I could step forward. I’ll be able to meet the community through my efforts as a firefighter.”
Once his training was complete in 2005, he realized the extent of the challenge and put his 15 years of web marketing experience to work. He told board members that the best way to spread the word about the department’s dire straits was with a professional-looking website.
Ronshausen’s marketing concept had two prongs. The first was spotlighting Anello, the department’s dynamic female chief. She went to work as a dispatcher for the Guerneville Fire Department at 15, and at 43 can count 28 years spent in the fire-fighting context. She carries on a multi-generational family tradition and is only the second female chief in Sonoma County.
His second goal was presenting Two Rock as a classic, small-town community. The website’s slogan now reads, “Protecting our little piece of the rock,” and a video on the site paints a hometown picture of the station and its volunteers.
Not long after the site’s debut, Two Rock began to get volunteer offers at the rate of at least one a week from as far south as San Jose and as far north as Oregon. E-mails arrived asking how to join the intern, explorer (youth) and pro bono programs.
Wernher Krutein, 58, took it from there. With three years of Two Rock volunteer experience and a 25-year career in corporate communications, he turned to Facebook and Twitter to keep the community informed and involved.
Twitter’s nonstop feed lets residents know in seconds whenever firefighters are on the roll or answering a call. Tweets from @TwoRockFire include messages like these:
Just uploaded a ton of photos from last night’s training at the train depot…
Homeowner, volunteer firefighter taken to hospital after fire destroys….
3 calls today. Vehicle accident, fall victim and a FIRE…but we got cancelled on the fire call…
Social media “is giving us a way to reach a lot of people effectively and affordably. It’s a conscious, organized effort to communicate (our) message,” said Ronshausen.
Krutein added , “We are able to keep our message constant, and yet stay personal.”
In most cases, the personal approach comes naturally for Two Rock volunteers. “It like a second family to me,” said Anello. “We show up on a call and the people in need know you by name. There’s no replacing that feeling.”
And although the county fire department is funded with 3/10ths of a cent from every property tax dollar, the county’s 15 volunteer fire departments depend on local donations for their funding. Word-of-mouth buzz that has been created by Two Rock’s social media efforts is helping there, too. There’s serious talk about being able to build a new state-of-the-art TwoRock fire house.
If that ever happens, Anello said, “Everyone will miss the old station. There’s a lot of memories here.”