By Gary Popp
Published in News on September 25, 2011 1:50 AM
Volunteer firefighters Amanda Wilkinson and David Strickland share a laugh as they sit in front of one of their Belfast Volunteer Fire Department trucks in the Berkeley Mall parking lot Saturday. Being a volunteer firefighter means more than just responding to wrecks and house fires, it also means spending time in training and at various public outreach events like Saturday's Safe Kids Community Day.
Randy Rogers, chief of Arrington Volunteer Fire Department, says he and other fire chiefs in Wayne County are all too familiar with the difficulties of finding enough volunteers to fill out the rosters.
A changing world and a weak economy are taking their toll on the county's volunteer fire departments as memberships continue to drop and funding becomes harder and harder to find, local chiefs say.
Wayne County officials say there are currently about 900 active volunteer firefighters in the county's 28 volunteer stations.
But movement away from an agriculture economy and the increasingly strict training standards required of volunteers are combining to erode the ranks of those who are called on to respond to emergencies, they say.
Randy Rogers, chief of Arrington Volunteer Fire Department, said he is keenly aware of the difficulty of attracting new members.
"The recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters is a big problem," Rogers said. "Keeping a full volunteer force is tough."
At Arrington and other departments, chiefs are taking steps to make working as a volunteer firefighter as simple and attractive as possible.
"At our station, we try to offer as many benefits as we can afford to get new members in," Rogers said. "We try to make it where the volunteer doesn't have to pay out of his pocket for anything."
He said when he started as a volunteer, firefighters had to pay for their own pagers, uniforms and equipment.
Today, in an effort to attract and to retain firefighters, he said departments try to provide high quality firefighting equipment for the firefighters to use, and even offer recreational options at the station, such as workout equipment, foosball tables and video games at the station.
"If you can get (a firefighter) to hang out at the department for just another hour, that is another hour the department is manned, and that means faster response times," Rogers said.
But while games might be useful in keeping volunteers around the fire house for a few extra hours, he said the best tool for building a strong department is getting the firefighters working together during training.
"At our station, our biggest moral booster is our training program," Rogers said.
Consistent group training might not always be option, however, as many people are consumed with their own careers.
Many area chiefs said Wayne County's shift in labor, from jobs on farms to jobs in the corporate world, has stifled volunteer recruitment.
"The rural areas, for many years, benefited from having a bunch of farmers who could leave the fields to go to a fire," said Richard Proctor, chief at Grantham Volunteer Fire Department. "We have fewer farmers today."
Proctor said many careers available in Wayne County today are not conducive to volunteer firefighting.
"Not as many employers can employ people who can leave work in the middle of the day," he said.
Rogers said local, small business owners are often more willing to have an active volunteer firefighter on staff because they know the fire that employee is rushing off to could be at the house of friend or family member, and that larger corporations might not have the same community focus.
Another deterrent to attracting and keeping volunteers is the increase in training requirements.
To be certified as a firefighter in the state, volunteers must log 36 hours of training each year, and many chiefs said, most volunteer firefighters are receiving two to three times that amount.
"It takes a lot of time and effort to train all your people to be really efficient," Rogers said.
But the time required to meet the training standards set by the state and fire chiefs can be too much of a commitment for some volunteers.
Many local chiefs said they have a lot of interest from young people who want to be part of the department, but that their excitement often fades when they realize how much work and time go into being a volunteer firefighter.
"We get a lot of interest from 16- and 17-year-olds," Chester Foss, chief of Dudley Volunteer Fire Department, said. "Out of five young ones, you hope you get one that will stick around."
And, he said, interest from recruits ages 25- to 35-years-old is almost non-existent, which could affect future department operations.
"You have a lot of folks aging out and leaving. It is beginning to be a problem," he said.
Foss said he empathizes with those who feel overwhelmed by the time commitments required to join a volunteer department.
"If I hadn't been in it for 20 years, I don't think I would get into it now," he said.
He said many people choose their careers and time with family over volunteer service.
But because of that, he said, Dudley Volunteer Department has been forced to take money out of its operating budget to add a paid firefighter on its roster.
"We put a paid man on three or four years ago who works 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday, and that has helped," Foss said.
Other fire stations have taken similar actions.
Nearly 10 years ago, the Elroy Volunteer Fire Department hired a part-time employee to work a few days during the week. A few years later, a second paid, part-time firefighter was hired.
However, explained Elroy Chief Steve Mozingo, that decision wasn't made because of low membership pressures -- Elroy has the largest population cluster in the county, which provides a larger pool from which the department can recruit.
"We have been pretty fortunate," he said.
Rather, the decision to have its paid employees work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. two days during the week was made because of the difficulty in getting volunteers to respond to calls during the day when most people are at work.
Wayne County Commissioner Dr. Sandra McCullen said the county's fire departments play invaluable role in their communities.
"We certainly could not provide the emergency services the people in our county need without the volunteer departments," she said. "We appreciate (county emergency management director) Joe Gurley and his staff for keeping our fire stations coordinated and continuing to provide an integral part of our structural needs."
Mrs. McCullen said firefighters act selflessly to protect the people and property of Wayne County.
"I have seen so many of them who have sacrificed time away from the families," she said. "It takes a lot of time and hard work to do what they do."
Mrs. McCullen said her family has recently been in unfortunate position of needing the services of her area volunteer fire service in Indian Springs, and that she was glad they were there.
"They are one of the small departments, and they do a great job," she said.
She added that people should support the departments during their fundraising events.
Wayne County Fire Marshal Bryan Taylor said the shortage of volunteer firefighters is a national issue, and that officials are working locally to confront the problem in Wayne County.
Taylor said Volunteer Fire Insurance Service, a private company based in Pennsylvania, will soon begin an assessment of all volunteer stations in the county.
"The county has recently signed a contract with VFIS to come in and do a study on the fire service in Wayne County. They are going to be looking at training, education, equipment and standards," Taylor said.
He said the assessment will let the county know what it needs to do to preserve the volunteer fire service for the next 20 years.
"One of the big things is going to be membership," Taylor said.
Officials with VFIS will meet separately with each individual department and look at their challenges. Taylor said he expects the assessment to begin sometime before Nov. 1 and to take about seven months.
The company will present its findings and recommendations to Wayne County officials following the assessment.