Rural areas seek firefighters


Staff Writer

Monday, September 3, 2018

It was only a few years ago that the South Edgecombe Rural Fire Department had to turn away people who wanted to be potential volunteer firefighters.

“I would say less than five years ago, we ran in the high 30s — about 37 or 38 — and there were times we had a roster max of 40,” said South Edgecombe Rural Fire Chief Johnathan Langley. “Our roster increased to 45, and we had some people that we couldn’t bring on because we didn’t have the room.”

However, things have changed since then for the South Edgecombe Rural Fire Department as interest in becoming a volunteer firefighter in the community has dwindle.

“About five years ago, we started seeing that transition affect us kind of like everyone else around the state,” Langley said. “We started seeing that drop off and we had people to retire out or some left and took jobs at other places. Our roster has dwindled with 8 to 10 people less over the last five years. We have worked hard to maintain our roster, but it has been tough.”

South Edgecombe Rural Fire Department is one of many fire departments across North Carolina that are facing a critical shortage of volunteer firefighters, including the rural fire stations in Nash and Edgecombe counties. 

According to research from FEMA, 72 percent of state firefighters are volunteer firefighters, which is a significant percentage of the workforce. In addition, the number of volunteers is declining at 11 to 12 annually, impacting life and emergency safety. A life is lost to fires every 1.8 days in North Carolina.

A two-year program has been designed to address the shortage of volunteer firefighters, especially in rural fire departments in the Twin Counties. The N.C. Association of Fire Chiefs in partnership with the International Association of Fire Chiefs is launching a campaign with state fire service agencies to recruit volunteer firefighters. Nash and Edgecombe counties are two of 15 state fire department groups participating in the two-year program.

“A lot of problems with rural departments in Edgecombe County is we don’t have the citizens living in these areas for these departments,” said Daniel Webb, emergency services coordinator for Edgecombe County. “You’ve got areas like Princeville, Conetoe and Speed hit hard by (Hurricane) Floyd and hit again by (Hurricane) Matthew and we just don’t have the people that have moved back in those areas.”

Brent Fisher, assistant director of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management for Nash County Emergency Services, said the two-year program is $941,400 funded by a FEMA SAFER Recruitment and Retention grant.

“Through the volunteer workforce solution program, the goals are to utilize the best methods to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters, identify the positive and negative factors that determine and influence recruitment and retention rates, provide leadership tools that will positively influence the reruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters,” he said.

Fisher added marketing strategies have been developed to generate interest such as using social media, producing videos such as public service announcements, making banners or marquee signs, providing information about the Nash Community College programs in public safety and emergency management and junior fire programs that both Nash and Edgecombe rural fire departments use to find volunteer firefighters.

The departments are dealing with an older generation of firefighters at or near retirement and need young volunteers waiting in the wings to replace them.

The junior programs allows the rural fire departments to stir interest in teenagers at 14 while allowing them to receive the training needed to become a volunteer firefighter. The teenagers in the junior program have a chance to rotate into a regular fire department when they turn 18. Webb said Edgecombe County has four junior programs. Over the years, the county’s rural fire department has gotten its biggest number of recruits and retention from.

Paul Powell is the fire chief of the Salem Volunteer Fire Department in Whitakers,which is mostly made up of volunteer firefighters. Powell, who doesn’t get paid like other volunteer firefighters, said it’s hard for people to put their time and energy into something they don’t get paid for, especially when the state require firefighters to have at least 36 hours of training each year.

Powell acknowledged the increasing difficulty in recruiting volunteer firefighters in his district but hopes more people in small and rural communities will understand how impact and difference they make in their own communities.

“We’re hoping more people will look at it as a positive thing to help somebody who is in trouble, and that’s something money can’t buy,” Powell said. “I get a lot out when I go help somebody.”