Fire Departments Struggle to Attract Volunteers

By MELISSA GREGORY, The Town Talk | March 18, 2016

alk to anyone at a fire department that depends on volunteers, and you’re likely to hear that it’s harder to get and keep new ones. And the ones already manning the stations aren’t getting any younger.

It’s also a problem that can hit your pocketbook if the fire rating in your community changes.

Getting new volunteers is an issue for a number of reasons _ people are less willing to part with shrinking free time; requirements to become a volunteer have become greater; and some employers might not be so willing to accommodate potential volunteers.

It’s a national problem, and fire chiefs around Central Louisiana see it, too.

“It’s just like everybody else,” said Olla Volunteer Fire Department Chief Joe Thompson, who also works a full-time job. “You have your full-time job, your family, and it’s getting harder and harder to get people in to where they’ll come to classes and get certified.”

Knowing that 69 percent of the nation’s fire service is comprised of volunteers, the National Volunteer Fire Council decided to act. The council received a FEMA grant to start a national recruitment campaign.

According to Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications for the council in Maryland, volunteerism is going down, yet calls are tripling. The age of existing firefighters is up, she told The Town Talk.

The campaign was created to raise awareness among the public, to let them know about the needs of departments.

Quiros said volunteer firefighters save an estimated $140 billion annually. She said time is a “huge issue” in the lack of recruits. It takes more time to get the proper training and certifications now than it did a few decades ago, something Ruby-Kolin Fire Department Chief Mike Paulk can confirm.

Paulk said it can take someone a year to complete firefighter certifications. A volunteer can get quickly certified for medical runs, and departments have seen those calls skyrocket.

But to become certified as a firefighter, people must take a course of more than 200 hours with classroom instruction and practical training.

Chief Thompson in Olla demonstrated some of what his firefighters must do. He thumbed through a thick book that contained information on businesses in the area, packed with floor plans, emergency contacts, information on nearby hydrants, sprinkler systems and more. All of that information must be kept current and updated by firefighters annually.

Firefighters have to be trained on their equipment and the different types of fire vehicles. “It’s a whole lot different jumping in those big trucks than it is a pickup,” said Thompson.

Quiros said many rural areas have been hit hard by the migration of young people to urban areas.

“You don’t have as much of a pool left for volunteers,” she said.

Britt Bolen, chief of the Holiday Village Fire Department, remembers when the department was all volunteers. But those days are gone, and the department now is a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.

In Woodworth, officials have taken a unique approach to the problem. The Woodworth Fire Department is a combination department, said Chief Buddy Guffey. Right now, he has about 24 volunteers and five full-time employees, including one clerical employee.

“Generally, if you get a third of those to show up to a call, you’ve done something,” he said.

But the department is able to count on six others, all certified firefighters and emergency medical technicians – the entire Woodworth Police Department.

Every police officer carries their firefighter gear, a foam fire extinguisher and an automated external defibrillator, in their patrol units. Chief James Gonzales said officers usually are on the scene of a call first. Since they’re trained firefighters, they are able to assess a situation upon arrival and alert firefighters en route about what situation they’re about to face.

Woodworth has a Class 4 fire rating. Ratings go from Class 1, the lowest, to Class 10, the highest and more expensive for homeowners. At least one area outside of the town’s limits isn’t covered by fire district. Butler estimates that residents of that area, who have a Class 10 rating, pay as much as $6,000 to $7,000 annually for fire insurance.

Departments always are seeking improvements to make so their ratings can be lowered. Chief Bolen noted that Holiday Village recently went from a Class 5 to a Class 4 after a push by him and the department’s board of directors in 2015.

That means people who live in the Holiday Village district will pay less for their fire insurance. And Bolen called that a “tremendous good for the community.”

Ruby-Kolin also is a Class 4, and Chief Paulk said it was close to a Class 3 during the district’s last review.

Olla Chief Thompson and Butler both discussed using events like high school demonstrations or junior firefighter programs as a way to reel in younger volunteers. Paulk did have a potential volunteer fill out paper work this week, even as he admitted that most of his volunteers have served the district for years.

The district is trying to attract new volunteers, though, hosting a Public Safety Awareness Day on April 9. The event, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 1217 Palmer Chapel Road, both will showcase what the firefighters do and advertise opportunities with the department.

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