Firefighters needed for VFDs

Published 1:37 am Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Chiefs say volunteer shortage seems to be national trend

Local fire chiefs agree: they all need more volunteers to join their departments.

But it’s not just a local problem, it’s a nationwide issue.
“There is a real problem with numbers in a volunteer fire department,” Opp Fire Chief Cory Spurlin said.

“It’s not just a problem within our county, I think it’s a problem in a big part of the nation.”

As the fire chief of a combination department, Spurlin has 10 paid “career” firefighters and 13 volunteers.

That’s more than half of his department.
“We are lucky to have a community and city that supports us to have paid firefighters, but we do still need help from volunteers,” Spurlin said. “We just try to pick up each other’s slack and do what we have to do.”
Spurlin says it’s not just a fire service issue.

“It’s not just volunteer fire service or volunteering to coach little league, I don’t know what it is. We’re just not getting the participation we used to.”

Brandon Holland, president of the Covington County Fire Association and secretary of the River Falls Volunteer Fire Department, said that ISO (Insurance Service Office) ratings affect every homeowner.

“Response times for infrastructure fires are very important to ISO inspections. A better response gets a better score for ISO,” Holland said.

ISO ratings are used to reflect a community’s local fire protection for property insurance rating purposes. That means that with low fire protection scores, homeowners pay higher insurance rates.

“A lot of these volunteer fire departments are operating on less than $20,000 a year. A brand new fire truck costs $500,000 or more. That’s why a majority of volunteer fire departments have 20-year-old trucks- it’s what they can afford,” Holland said.

What the volunteer fire departments don’t get from property tax money or the appropriation they get once a year from the Alabama Forestry Commission, they get from donations within the community.

Holland says that volunteers are needed and they will take anyone they can get.
“There is no required training. Once you are committed to a fire department they will handle the cost of training,” he said.

The training can also be carried over to becoming a paid firefighter, Holland said.
“Anyone who wants to volunteer can, whether you are young or old. You’re needed and there will be a place for you in the department.”
Even if someone is intimidated about fighting fires, Holland says not to worry.
“You don’t have to fight fires. There are plenty of other positions within the department that need help. Even just filling up oxygen tanks can make a difference.”

Volunteers often have to juggle a full-time job and responding to calls.

“A lot of businesses will not allow people to leave work to respond,” Holland said.

“The biggest struggle for response time is that firefighters work Monday through Friday in their full-time jobs.”

However, there are laws in place that prevent the termination of an employee if they are late to work because of responding to a fire.

Even then, volunteer firefighters still struggle.

“Some of these guys stay out all night working on a call and go home, take a shower, and head to their full-time jobs,” Andalusia Fire Chief Russell McGlamory, said.

“It’s tough work,” he said.

And it’s definitely needed work.

McGlamory has been a part of the Andalusia Fire Department since 1986, a time when there weren’t many volunteer fire departments organized.

“There was Opp, Florala, Gantt, Carolina and one or two more fire departments that were fairly active. A lot of (the current ones) weren’t formed,” he said.

Because of that, Andalusia Fire Department had to respond to places throughout the county and response time was slower.

Florala Fire Chief Michael Cheshire said that response times during the day are tough to manage due to people working out of town.
“We work a 25-man crew here and we are blessed to have more than a lot of volunteer fire departments out here have,” Cheshire said. “But a majority of our guys work out of town during the day so we require mutual aid.”

Luckily for Florala, Lockhart Volunteer Fire Department and the Walton County Fire Department are close by and can assist them, the fire chief said.

“We are still vulnerable. It’s hard to get dependable and reliable members, we are always looking for new members and we will never turn anyone away.”

Out of the 25 men on the Florala VFD, Cheshire says about three or four are available during the day to respond to a call.

“It’s a team effort. Volunteer fire departments work together.”

People don’t realize what volunteer fire departments do, Cheshire said.

“It’s more than just getting in a firetruck, squirting water on a fire and going home. These people work a fire from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m., and go straight to work,” he said.

“There’s a lot of sacrifice in this line of work.”

Scott Fight, the fire chief at Gantt, said his department mans two stations to keep the ISO rating low for people living in Dozier and Gantt.
The department does not receive support from the Town of Gantt, he said.

“We’re considered a business even though we’re a volunteer fire department,” Fight said.

Fight’s said the annual budget is barely more than $30,000.

That’s covering all the necessities, training, gas for trucks, payments for trucks and insurance for all the vehicles.

That doesn’t include any unforeseen issues that could arise.

Fire equipment is expensive to keep up.

“Just a nozzle for one of the water hoses is anywhere from $500 to $3,000,” Fight said.
Another struggle for Fight is members responding to fires.

“I think a lot of it is that employers won’t let volunteer firefighters leave work to help with a fire,” he said.

“If employers would be more forgiving, maybe even let them stay clocked in, I think we’d have more participation. If we don’t have firefighters to keep up response time, the higher insurance will be.”

The more slowly firefighters get on scene, the worse it could be for anyone in danger, Fight said.
“The community has been good to us so far with donations and helping us out,” he said. “But we always need volunteers.”

Anyone interested in getting involved can contact their local fire departments for more information.