WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Fire departments in a dozen counties across the state are participating in a recruitment and retention program aimed at increasing their volunteer numbers.
"We're actually looking to hopefully obtain at least 100 new volunteers," said Capt. Glenn Clapp, speaking of the departments across Wake County.
The national initiative is overseen by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs, and Council for Future Volunteer Firefighters, made possible through a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant for volunteer recruitment and retention.
Chief Phil Batts with the Silver Lake Volunteer Fire Department in Wilson County explained that their main issue is how far away many of their volunteers live.
"That's one of our biggest challenges is having people available to volunteer in critical times," said Batts, who added that they typically dispatch four different departments to structure fires.
Clapp said about 72 percent of firefighters in North Carolina are volunteers, and they have a 12 percent annual turnover rate. Between training and equipment, this can be costly.
"We're just talking about the gear that's custom-fitted to each member runs about $3,500 each. So, if someone joins as a volunteer and then leaves for some reason, we might not have another volunteer that's the same size because it's custom-fitted. So that could be a $3,500 loss right there. That is why we're really trying to stem the tide in terms of volunteer retention," Clapp said.
He said the grant funding would go toward enhanced marketing efforts, and possible scholarship and tuition reimbursement.
Capt. Edward Eason with the Youngsville Volunteer Fire Department said they average eight people on-scene (not including medical calls); this represents a one-to-two person drop compared to recent years.
"We are bridging the gap of on-scene personnel with Mutual Aid agreements from surrounding departments. This again leaves their territory less protected. An ideal number that we would like to see is between 16-20 from our department response," Eason wrote in a statement to ABC 11.
The response statistics Eason cited include paid staff.
"If you take everything into scope, the shortage in volunteers cost the citizens' safety and money. It affects things such as response time (if we are taking into account secondary apparatus response and travel time from mutual aid). It affects them monetarily through tax rates for staffing and insurance ratings," Eason wrote.
Chief Rodney Daniels, the Fire Marshal for Harnett County Emergency Services, provided the following statement to ABC 11:
Like many other counties, our volunteer departments used to provide an excellent service to their community with their own members. Due to the loss of volunteers, these same departments are now depending on assistance from other fire departments to operate safely and efficiently. An average residential structure fire response is comprised of members from 3 departments. For years Harnett County has been mostly rural with an abundance of farmland. In the past few years Harnett County has experienced tremendous residential growth as these farms have been sold to developers. Several of these farmers were very active volunteer firefighters who have now taken jobs out of their response areas. The population increase in these areas have contributed to a drastic increase in the number of fire responses. In the last 10 years the request for fire protection responses have increased by 40%. The increased call volume coupled with the decrease in volunteers has forced several of our departments to increase fire tax rates to supplement their volunteers with paid personnel. Many of these departments are only staffed Monday through Friday and still depend heavily on volunteers. Increasing our volunteer workforce is essential to continue providing quality fire protection services to our citizens at current tax rates.
The following departments are taking part:
- Bladen County: Elizabethtown Fire Department
- Buncombe County: French Broad Volunteer Fire & Rescue and West Buncombe Volunteer Fire Department
- Cherokee County: Hiwassee Dam Volunteer Fire Department
- Duplin County: Chinquapin Volunteer Fire & Rescue
- Forsyth County: Lewisville Fire Department and Rural Hall Fire Department
- Franklin County: Youngsville Volunteer Fire Department
- Harnett County: Harnett County Chiefs Association
- Northampton County: Gaston Volunteer Fire Department
- Pitt County: Town of Winterville Fire Department
- Wake County: Wake County Fire Services
- Wilson County: Silver Lake Volunteer Fire Department
- Yadkin County: East Bend Volunteer Fire Department and Fall Creek Volunteer Fire Department
If you're interested in learning about volunteer opportunities, click here.