Fire departments across North Carolina and the nation are experiencing a critical shortage of volunteers.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 72 percent of all firefighters in the state are volunteers with 90 percent of departments being all or mostly volunteers. Volunteer numbers in North Carolina have dropped by 600 per year since 2016.
According to Denver Fire Department (DFD) Chief Jay Flynn, the Lincoln County Fire and Rescue Association, with help from a Volunteer Workforce Solutions grant administered through NC Association of Fire Chiefs, has seen an increase in interest in volunteering. However, the county still has need for new recruits.
One of the biggest factors of the shortage is the amount of training required to become certified by the state. According to Flynn, there’s little difference between a paid firefighter and a volunteer.
It took Josh Farmer two years and over 300 hours to become a NC state-certified firefighter, which wasn’t official until his 18th birthday earlier this month. Now he’s eligible to go inside burning structures or help EMTs on the scene of car accidents as a member of the North Brook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department.
Prior to that, Farmer called himself a gopher. When the Lincoln Times-News arrived at the North Brook station to interview one of their assistant chiefs Garrett Gilbert, Farmer was cutting the grass with a push mower.
Not all volunteers have to don an Air-Pak and enter a burning building. No job is too small on the scene of a fire or accident and everyone has to do their part, whether responding to a call or maintaining fire equipment.
“Honestly anything,” Gilbert said. “There’s always any kind of job on a fire scene. You may think going to getting something off of a truck is not that big of a job, but just being able to walk to the truck to get a piece of equipment or a tool, that saves time, saves lives, saves property. That’s not taking the guy inside the house outside to go get something.”
Gilbert adds that small jobs, like directing traffic helps keep a scene safe for firefighters and the public.
North Brook is the only department in the county that doesn’t have at least a few paid staff. According to Gilbert it’s the largest district in the county, covering 44 square miles. Albeit North Brook isn’t as densely populated as other areas.
A volunteer fire department doesn’t just handle fires. They’re dispatched to vehicular accidents, medical calls and locked vehicles, to name just a few.
DFD transitioned in 2001 from an all volunteer agency to having a few paid staff members to man their three fire stations daily.
“The bottom line there is those are a very limited number of folks,” Flynn said. “We rely heavily on off-duty and volunteer response, as well as working together with neighboring fire departments to put enough firefighters on the scene.”
Departments are required to dispatch 15 firefighters to the scene of a house fire in the initial response. According to Flynn, no department in Lincoln county has the numbers to answer a call to a house fire without help from neighboring departments.
“Without mutual aid, the fire departments would deeply struggle,” Flynn said. “Even larger county fire departments like East Lincoln or Denver that have some levels of staffing, we work together. Look at Denver. We have eight folks on duty. We’re just a hair over half of what scientifically proven research says we should be putting on the scene. That’s why when there’s a house fire in Lincoln county, it just doesn’t get the fire department in the district where the house is burning. You actually get two other neighboring fire departments as well. It’s all about getting people those people to the scene to get all the tasks done that need to happen in order save lives and save property.”
While North Brook isn’t experiencing a shortage of volunteers like other county departments, Gilbert understands how many people can’t commit to the strenuous training requirements and time away from family that being a volunteer can entail.
Like many volunteers in the county, Gilbert has a full time job and a family. He serves as a deacon at his church and helps at West Lincoln High School.
Gilbert said that being honest and understanding of their volunteers’ family and work obligations have helped with recruitment and retention.
“For us here, that’s one of our big of our big successes” Gilbert said. “We’ve made people here understand what their priorities are. This is on the list. But there are things above it. And don’t feel ashamed because you’re not here. We want you to take care of what you’ve got going on outside of here, then be an integral part of this department.”
North Brook’s small population, many of which are multi-generation locals may also be a factor in its ability to keep up numbers. Whereas other areas that are seeing more development and people moving in from other areas of the country. Those new residents may have come from an area with a municipal fire service and don’t yet understand that it’s on average citizens to answer the call to volunteer.
In North Carolina, volunteers that join a fire department can receive training at no cost through the state community college system or in-house training at a department.
Farmer started as a high school student through the School of Technology then cobbled together the rest of his training by traveling to community colleges in Gaston, Cleveland, Rowan and Cabarrus counties.
Currently there are two bills moving through the NC Legislature that can help fire departments retain volunteers.
House Bill 631 could make volunteer eligible for an income tax credit of up to $500. Senate Bill 416, also known as the "Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention Act of 2019,” could make qualified volunteers eligible for loan forgiveness, free hunting and fishing licenses, reduced property tax rates and could increase pension fund payments.
“That’s one of the things state legislature is looking at because they recognize that there is such a value to the volunteer across the state,” Flynn said. “If you look at 72 percent of the state’s fire fighting force are volunteers. If you have to replace 72 percent of your workforce with career, fully compensated fire fighters. Think about the impact that would have across the state.”
Within the county, Flynn said that officials in the fire service are working with the fire marshall, county commissioners, the county manager to try to use community funds in best manner to provide services that needed to provide citizens in a safe manner.
“It’s community,” Gilbert said. “We’re here for each other. We’re here to help each other out in the worst time you could be having. Everybody here has bought into that so we all try to do our part to ensure the wheel keeps turning.”