BUCKHANNON – For the past few years, volunteer fire departments have had more and more responsibilities tacked on their to-do lists.
Now, with a higher call volume that includes responses to medical emergencies, structure fires, car wrecks and more, county fire departments are facing a decrease in volunteers.
“It’s a difficult situation, and the need for more staffing is definitely here with the call volume we have,” said Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble. “It’s definitely coming that we’re going to have to do something, or possibly one of these days, look at what services we provide [and] if we can’t gain staffing, what can we give up that the community is not in dire need of and continue as we are, but we’re always looking to try to improve.”
When Kimble came onto the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department as a volunteer in late 1989, he said the department had roughly 34 volunteers with 70 percent of the volunteers considered active. Today, BFD has 34 members, seven of which are paid and six contributing members who specialize in certain areas, such as scuba diver, water rescues and rope rescues.
“So really we have about 19 active firefighters including our paid staff at this time,” he said, adding the number probably represents a 20 percent decrease in volunteerism today compared to 25 years ago.
With fire departments now being called for more than just structure fires and motor vehicle accidents, Kimble said the uptick in calls and a decline in volunteers has affected response time. He noted back in 2000, the department responded to 128 calls.
But just in January of this year, the department matched that number.
“Here we respond to about 1,500 calls a year, and if it gets to the point where our staffing starts to suffer, we’re going to have to look at it as a whole on ‘what are we providing and what non-essential responses do we get rid of to try to get people more enthused about coming on other calls,’” he said.
Kimble noted smaller, rural fire departments may struggle more with finding volunteers as the area as a smaller pool from which to recruit folks.
“The trouble sometimes is the Buckhannon Fire Department encompasses 14,000 people in our fire district, but when you go to a smaller fire department district, like Banks District in Rock Cave, for example, it may have 1,500 people or maybe a 1,000, so the pool of people they have to pick from is a lot smaller also, so they have to come up with unique ideas to gather people out of a smaller pool of population,” he explained. “They have a bigger concern on that aspect of it than we do.
“Here we have 14,000 people, we have the college, we just took in two new members in a year. I can remember only one year that we didn’t take in somebody new. Usually we’ll take in two to four new members a year,” Kimble added.
However, the Banks District Volunteer Fire Department is really feeling the strain with limited volunteers.
With 30 years at the fire department, fire chief John Roby said, “Definitely the worst that I’ve seen it, but it’s declining more and more.”
Currently, the Rock Cave department has 26 members, 15 of whom are firefighters. During the dayshift, Roby said roughly two firefighters will be on call.
“Most people have day jobs, a lot of the times if they work a 10-hour day, and they come home, they’re tired,” he said.
While volunteerism is down, Ellamore Fire Chief Jamie Pugh said, “We’ve got more now than we’ve had in the past, but still it’s the same few that run the calls.”
In the last few years, Pugh said the department has picked up a few members, however, the activity of those members is low.
Like most departments, Pugh said the most needed time for volunteers is during the day.
“There’s still three or four that’s around during the daytime, and I can come and go as I need to at work,” said Pugh, “so, that helps out also.”
The decline in volunteerism has affected situations that require a lot of manpower, Pugh said.
“Response time, it really hasn’t because like I said, we have the same ones through the daytime and evening, you usually have the ones who make all the calls are usually on every call,” he said, “but manpower wise, it makes it tougher, and usually on a structure fire you have three departments automatically, but most of the time, you’re asking for a fourth department especially for manpower [needs].”
Like Kimble, Chief Roby stressed this is not just an Upshur County concern.
“This story has really been beat to death like a dead horse, and it falls on deaf ears and to the state, and it’s a problem everywhere,” said Roby.
Reasons for the decrease
While the fire chiefs grapple with the reason behind the decline in recruitment, Roby said Rock Cave’s elderly community could be a possibility.
“Our community, the problem here is, this is a retirement community and most of the young guys that do live here are working completely out of town and don’t get back until it’s too late to volunteer,” he said. “That’s our biggest issue.”
With additional duties included in the job title, Kimble said folks are less interested in joining the fire service these days.
“People don’t want to be policemen and firemen anymore,” he said. “The job has changed, and people are just not as interested as they used to be, whether it be law enforcement of fire department.”
“I think fire service is like anything else, nobody wants to volunteer anymore,” said Pugh, who has been in the fire service industry since 1997. “People call and want to join, and they ask about the pay, and I say, ‘It’s volunteer’ and then they’re not interested.”
The dangerous aspect of the job also plays a role, Kimble said.
“I think the type of work for people applying, whether it be law enforcement or the fire service, they’re dangerous jobs, and the stuff you deal with today, when you’re a firefighter, you’re 16 to 17 percent more likely to get cancer than a normal person right now. And cancer is a big rampant thing in the fire service right now,” he said.
He added, “It’s a different world today, and I always try to instill in council, as does Matt (Gregory), the stuff we deal with on a daily basis out in the communities is lot different than what it was when I got in here I can tell you that – just the types of calls and the amount of calls you go out on.”
While some may argue that training sessions are obstacles when recruiting folks, Kimble and Roby stress that potential firefighters should not get discouraged by training.
“The time consumption to become a volunteer fireman just to start with, you’re looking at an 150-hour course, which a lot of people will say the training runs people away, but I disagree with that,” said Kimble. “I agree that the longer and the more intense the training, the better firefighter you have. If somebody wants to become a firefighter, they’ll do whatever it takes to get to that point.
“So, if you want to lower the standards, there’s the old saying that you get what you pay for, and that’s kind of the way I look at it.”
“Don’t let the classes discourage you,” remarked Roby. “Once you get through the classes as far as going out and helping people, it’s just to hear that one thank you from the community, it’s worth it all.”
Future plans for recruiting
So, what does the future looking like for these rural fire departments?
“I’m looking for answers and alternatives on what we can do to get people excited in here again,” said Chief Roby.
Kimble believes the county and city government need to come together and plan for the future.
He said if the two entities don’t start looking to the years ahead, some fire departments may start to really face issues with maintaining and gaining membership.
“I’m including the city and county government in this,” he said. “We need to start working together. It’s always been that they’re separate, but as far as fire service goes, if the county and the city worked together we’d be able to provide a better service countywide than we do now, but you have to get everybody on the same page and get everybody in a room and come up with a plan.”
“I’m including the city and county government in this,” he said. “We need to start working together. It’s always been that they’re separate, but as far as fire service goes, if the county and the city worked together we’d be able to provide a better service countywide than we do now, but you have to get everybody on the same page and get everybody in a room and come up with a plan.”-Buckhannon fire chief J.B. Kimble
Kimble said the city and county need to determine what types of incidents the fire departments should respond to and what the public actually expects from the fire service; for instance, does the public expect them to cut trees out of the road and direct traffic during car wrecks?
“You’ve got to prioritize what you’re doing, and how are you best serving your community,” he said.
Because all three fire chiefs have been in the fire service for years, they know the value and rewarding factor of helping a person in need.
“It’s rewarding to actually go out to somebody who needs you desperately or some of the worst times in people’s lives and you’re out there for those people,” said Roby. “That is so rewarding. Once they get out there and they do that a few times, then you’re hooked.”
“(Being) there when somebody needs your help and being able to help somebody in a time of need, it’s pretty rewarding,” said chief Pugh.
Those interested in volunteering should reach out to their local fire departments for more information on how to begin training.