Agencies struggle to recruit volunteer firefighters

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Silver Lake Volunteer Fire Department recently participated in a federally-funded public service announcement designed to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters as departments struggle to maintain the numbers needed to adequately respond to calls in rural America.

“It is a revolving door with membership numbers growing and decreasing,” said Sanoca Volunteer Fire Chief A.J. O’Briant. “The turnover rate is pretty high when people figure out they have to have all these certifications and training hours.”

Since 2016, North Carolina departments have lost an average of 600 firefighters annually, and with 91.2 percent of those departments being all or mostly volunteer, officials are working hard to stanch the losses with to a $1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs.

Departments in Wilson County and surrounding communities are not immune from these hardships or creative solutions to finding residents willing to sacrifice to help others. Here are some of their stories:

Jim Miller

Assistant chief at Rock Ridge
Volunteer Fire Department

Miller’s grandfather was a founding member of the department in 1961, and his father has served as the chief for four decades, so being part of the legacy to give back to his community was a given. Like many volunteer firefighters, Miller works full-time as a firefighter and responds to calls in Rock Ridge on his days off.

“In a lot of cases, we show up on people’s worst days and make it better,” he said. “It is fulfilling to use our knowledge and skills to make a difference in the lives of others. When we leave a call, you know you were able to make a difference.”

The department was founded in 1961, and with a roster of 32 volunteers is among the few Wilson departments at peak membership. Rock Ridge has a junior firefighter program for youth 16 to 18 and is developing an auxiliary program for others interested in supporting the department.

Paul Whitehurst

Chief at Kenly Volunteer Fire Department

Kenly is one of the oldest volunteer departments in the region with roots from before World War II and membership numbers just a few volunteers short from the peak at 40 people. Whitehurst started as a junior firefighter and eventually parlayed that into a career in public service.

“Being a volunteer firefighter is a lot of work with people not usually realizing how much work is involved,” he said. “Dedication is one thing we look for in volunteers because when someone comes on board, they go through the community college firefighter training that is usually nights and weekends for a year.

“We have volunteers going through that now, and it is a huge time commitment.”

Volunteer firefighters also have to meet a state requirement of at least 36 hours of fire-related training. However, for community-minded individuals unable to dedicate so much time, the department seeks volunteers to help with fundraisers, public education programs, administrative work and even help with technology.

“There is a need out there for everyone,” Whitehurst concluded. “We absolutely need people.”

Adam Gibson

Chief at Sharpsburg Volunteer Fire Department

Gibson’s interest in the fire department started from a young age as he’d watch crews stream by with sirens blazing heading to calls, and in 2008, he followed his brother’s footsteps and joined the department.

“To be a good firefighter, a person has to be a family man, but they also have to be willing to give up time with family to help others in need,” he said. “And you definitely have to have a good work ethic because when you’re fighting a fire, you just can’t quit because you want to. We’ve got to make sure we work until the job is done and to the best of our ability.”

He said the need for volunteers of all abilities is crucial to keeping the community safe, acknowledging that disabilities shouldn’t prevent a willing volunteer from serving. In fact, on the department’s website, Sharpsburg remembers a Vietnam vet who lost both legs and an arm in an explosion during the war, but James Edward “Butch” Robbins would be on the scene, connecting hoses to the hydrant and running the truck while firefighters battled house fires.

Visit https://sharpsburgfd.org/ and click on “Butch” Robbins under the members tab for more details on his story of service.

Jeff Collier

Assistant chief at
Black Creek Volunteer Fire Department

With Collier’s grandfather being a charter member of the department, his membership in 1989 was a given, but he soon turned it into a career with Wilson Fire/Rescue Services and his company, Triple J Fire Apparatus Repair.

“Back when the department was established, it was done by the farmers in the area, so they were in the community all day and could respond,” Collier said. “But now there aren’t many jobs in Black Creek, so people drive to Wilson for jobs and can’t always respond.”

For that reason, the town raised tax rates to offset the cost of having at least two part-time firefighters in the station from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.

“Before that, our ISO rating was a 7/9, and it went down to a Class 4, which dropped everybody’s insurance rate and offset the tax hike,” Collier said.

A.J. O’Briant

Chief at Sanoca Volunteer Fire Department

O’Briant said membership numbers for the department are adequate right now, but attributes much of that success to recruitment efforts similar to the unorthodox one at Barton College that led to him joining in 1995 when he was working for the college.

“What we’re looking for during recruitment is anybody that is able-bodied with a desire and willingness to serve,” he said. “Unfortunately, our community by the fire station is aging, so we have to look outside our community. We have members that live in Wilson and members that live in other fire districts, but that is the only way we can get the numbers we need to serve the community.”

The department has a tactical support group that does much of the behind-the-scenes work associated with running the department such as administrative work, washing the trucks and maintaining the station.

“The main reason I’m in it is to serve the community and be a part of the public service brotherhood,” he said. “The brotherhood and camaraderie is like no other.”

Scott Matthews

Chief at Contentnea Volunteer Fire Department

Contentnea has slightly more than half of its peak membership, but Matthews noted it boils down to more than just having names on a list.

“Dedication and commitment are essential because numbers don’t matter if they are not active and involved,” he said. “I can have a roster of 80 people, but if only 20 percent are involved, the roster means nothing.”

Like a number of area departments, Contentnea does have a grant to help reimburse volunteer firefighters for responding to calls. But Matthews noted such funding isn’t guaranteed to last forever, and those who are interested in learning more about all that’s involved can show up at the station at 7 p.m. Monday during member meetings.

“I understand why some folks don’t want to make the commitment, but I stress that they don’t have to be here all the time. They just have to do something and any help you can give is appreciated,” he said. “I’ve learned that no matter who the person is, what their strengths and weaknesses are, there is always a role for them.”

Hunter Barnes

Chief at Sims Volunteer Fire Department

Sims was the last volunteer fire department in Wilson County to be established and is about 10 members shy of ideal volunteer staffing for the district.

“The main thing is just wanting to help your community. Volunteers really are a dying breed and for that reason, departments in the county have had to go and pay part-time people during the day,” Barnes said. “It is a constant struggle to get membership, and once you get new members, it is a struggle to retain them.

“The whole volunteer community is in desperate need of help.”

He encouraged teens who are interested in pursuing a career in the fire service to look into a junior firefighter program like the one in Sims. Youth 16 to 18 with good grades and approval from their school principal along with permission from a parent or guardian are given the opportunity to learn all the work firefighting entails and determine whether it’s a good fit.

“It is important to be unselfish and willing to give up some of your personal time for the greater needs of your community,” Barnes concluded.

Visit www.weneedfirefighters.org/ to learn more about being a volunteer firefighter and contact your local department for more information.