It was 1994, and Edward King was driving down the road and decided to make a stop.
“I just drove by the fire station one day and I thought, ‘Hm, I want to do that,’” he said, and walked inside the Courtney Volunteer Fire Department.
When Jody Doss was 14, the local fire chief drove through his neighborhood in a pickup truck and offered kids to hop in the back on Tuesday evenings and come for training at the fire department for a couple hours.
“Most of the boys in the neighborhood said yes, and that’s how we started,” recalled Doss, age 55, and himself now the fire chief in Yadkinville.
Those are some of the paths that volunteers followed to become firefighters in another era.
“It used to be, it wasn’t that really big of a deal to get volunteers, people would come to you,” Doss said.
Today, local volunteer fire departments are running television and Pandora radio advertisements, sending out press releases and considering installing state-of-the-art gym and workout equipment to attract volunteers and reinforce their dwindling ranks. The need is so great that federal and state governments have issued millions of dollars in recruitment grants, of which hundreds of thousands of dollars have been awarded to Yadkin County departments.
While the grant funds sound impressive, it’s a stopgap. The average cost to employ a paid firefighter is $56,000 per position, which includes benefits and other employer costs beyond wages.
The math is simple. More than 70 percent of all firefighters in North Carolina are volunteers. Without those volunteers, many departments would cease to operate.
“We’re trying to get more people interested in doing volunteer because volunteer departments are fading — they are not getting as many people interested because people are busy with life and work,” said Amanda Christy, the recruitment and retention officer through a grant-funded position at the Courtney Volunteer Fire Department.
Christy started volunteering at the Courtney fire department at age 15 through the cadet program. Cadet programs still operate today and offer volunteer positions starting at age 14.
Being a volunteer these days isn’t as easy as it used to be — due to lifestyle and culture changes, employer support, and the requirements placed on volunteers in an ever-more bureaucratic world of regulation. Years ago, employers were supportive of firefighters leaving their employment during the day to fight fires.
“Most of our volunteers work outside Yadkin County and can’t respond to fires during the day,” said County Manager Lisa Hughes. “A lot of our active members are members because their dads and grandads were members, it was a way of life. Some of our young people don’t want that life and have other things they want to do. Plus, it takes a very special person to get out of a very warm bed at 3 a.m. to go fight a fire when they already have to get up at 5 a.m. to go to work.”
Christy and Doss are using their recruitment and retention grant funds to get the word out but also to look at volunteer initiatives that help bridge the culture gap. For example, Doss said the Yadkinville department is installing $10,000 worth of gym and workout equipment. They know many potential recruits drive to Clemmons and pay for expensive gym memberships. Cutting down on commute time and costs might help sway a potential volunteer.
Fielding a team
In Yadkinville, Doss says he has a roster of 30 volunteers.
“Thirty sounds like a good number, but in the grand scheme of things, if we have a working fire right now during the day, we have myself and two other guys and there’s one volunteer here hanging out with us,” Doss said. “The minimum response is at least one engine and four guys, but that’s just the bare minimum, that’s not really enough to do anything when we get there.”
At night and outside of work hours, around 15 volunteers might respond to a call.
“You have all of them on paper, but about half of them come out,” he said. “Yeah, we’re short.”
Ten years ago, the Courtney department had no paid staff and 45 volunteers, Christy said. Five years ago, volunteers had dropped to 40, and one year ago, there were just 25 volunteers. Since that time, they have implemented their grant and their volunteer ranks are up to 36.
The Courtney results are testament that recruitment efforts work.
“Departments were losing potential volunteers because they weren’t marketing — people didn’t understand there was a need,” said Tracy Mosley, grant manager with the N.C. Association of Fire Chiefs. “We’ve found out over the last three years that there are more people who would love to volunteer. They don’t know how to get into the fire service and they didn’t know they need any help.”
A variety of ways to help
“There is a misconception that when you volunteer, it means you have to be willing to go into a burning building,” Hughes said. “That’s not true. They need members to drive trucks, help with water haul, help hydrate, etc. If you have the time to train with the department, they have a job for you.”
Volunteering does require — due to regulations — 36 hours of training per year or more. In Courtney, they offer training sessions every Tuesday night and often on weekends.
For those on the fence or who just want to learn more, departments offer ride-along sessions or programs. Just call and ask.
King — who started volunteering after simply driving by all those years ago — says that the reward of serving his community isn’t in the feedback he gets from residents he has helped or the fire team with whom he collaborates.
“I guess it’s a cumulative thing over the years,” he said. “I’ve just enjoyed being around like-minded people. Everybody has the same goal, which is if someone needs help, we go help them. Once we are able to help someone in their time of need or emergency and then you get to go back and reflect on that … as a human being, it’s what we’re supposed to do.”
All Yadkin County fire departments are currently recruiting for volunteers.
Lisa Michals may be reached at 336-448-4968 or follow her on Twitter @lisamichals3.