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Fire departments having trouble recruiting

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POSTED: August 21, 2013 12:19 p.m.
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Bryan County Emergency Services personnel conduct a rescue demonstration during the Public Safety Day in Richmond Hill earlier this year. The department is in need of volunteers.

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Volunteers are getting harder to come by for volunteer fire departments, and Bryan County Emergency Services Chief Freddy Howell knows why it’s getting tougher to find people to serve.  
“People just don’t have the time for it any more,” he said. “It’s not just here in this department, it’s a national trend.”
Howell has done the research to back up his claim. He cited studies by the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Volunteer Fire Council that show, among other things, that 52 percent of the fire departments in Georgia are still volunteer departments. At the same time, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined by about 18 percent over the past 30 years.
The American Sociology Association reports a decline in volunteering across society. But because of state and federal laws, volunteer fire departments may be the most impacted because of the demands placed on volunteers — who in Georgia are required to undergo eight weeks of training in Forsyth to become certified.
And that’s just for starters.
“Now about 90 percent of our calls are EMS, so not only do volunteers have to become fire certified, they need to go to first responder or EMT school,” Howell said. “Those are 1½- to 2½-year programs. People just don’t have the time to do that.”
The NVFC reports increased training requirements, increasing call volumes and a wider variety of services expected of fire departments are among the reasons fewer volunteer.
But that’s not the only problem. The NVFC also reports longer commuting distances and two-income families have left potential volunteers with less time to give.
In addition, a change in attitude regarding volunteering and employers who are less willing to let employees off to run calls also plays a role in the declining number of volunteers.
It’s led to an interesting dichotomy. At the same time the number of volunteers is going down, the age of volunteers is going up.
What’s more, fire department call volume has nearly tripled in the last 25 years due in large part to EMS calls and false alarms, the NVFC reports. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that about half the firefighters who die each year suffer heart attacks. Fifty-three percent of those who die are volunteers, according to the NVFC, which said an average of 100 firefighters die annual.
Numbers could be better
There are roughly 30 volunteer firefighters in Bryan County. Howell would like to see more.
“I don’t think we can get too many,” he said. “We never know when we’re going to need them. For minor stuff, we’ve probably got enough. For major stuff, we don’t have near as many as we need.”
Howell is currently trying to attract interest in a citizen’s academy that he hopes in turn will lead some to decide to become volunteers. So far, the response hasn’t been what as great as he’d like. But Howell isn’t giving up.
“We need firefighters because we’re in the lifesaving business,” Howell said. “That and protecting property is our No. 1 priority. But we also need clerical folks, we need someone who knows how to do GIS, and someone who’s good with social media to help keep us updated on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not easy running calls and tweeting at the same time.”
In addition to a need for firefighters, Bryan County can also use volunteers to help as public information officers, photographers, videographers, an inventory specialist, office assistants, IT people and those to help staff special events.
There’s even a spot for someone willing to wear the Sparky the Fire Dog costume.
In short, if someone wants to help, there’s room at the Bryan County Volunteer Fire Department, Howell said.
There’s no age requirement, though “if you’re going to be in operations, we do need you to be physically fit,” he said.
The reward may not be financial, but there is a reward at the end of the day, according to Howell.
“If you like to help people and you want to give back to the community, those are the things you get out of this,” Howell said. “It’s a sacrifice. It’s also rewarding. When you save somebody’s life or save some body’s house, or when you see you’re helping the community, you know you’re making a difference.”
The Bryan County Citizens Emergency Academy is one night a week for eight weeks beginning Sept. 5. For more information about it or volunteer firefighting in Bryan County, call 858-2799.


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