Fire depts. fighting to survive

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2006

It’s 2 in the afternoon and your smoke alarm starts its high-pitched wail. A peek in the kitchen shows that your souffle has burnt and flames are engulfing the entire room. You call 911, but who will come to help you and how soon will they get there?

Every day scenarios like this play out, most times they are resolved quickly with no injuries, but some local firefighters say the ever-dwindling number of volunteers and lean budgets are hampering their efforts to protect their communities.

Day time calls

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Because most of those who volunteer have paying jobs finding enough firefighters to respond to calls during the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. is a huge challenge for departments, said Mike Boster, chief of the Rome Volunteer Fire Department. In fact, Boster says he worries about it every day.

Although there are 24 on his roster, only a handful of firefighters are able to respond during the day. In a community that is growing by leaps and bounds, with more businesses and homes cropping up weekly, this could be devastating.

“The amount of property we have to protect and the number of people we serve keeps growing,” Boster said. “We are very limited on daytime responders and there is really nothing you can do about it. The majority of the firefighting population have jobs and cannot always come when there is an emergency.”

In Coal Grove, Fire Chief Gary Sherman said, “It’s the luck of the draw what you’re going to get when the tones drop.”

Each time they get a call during the day, there are about two or three people who can usually be there immediately. The department has a roster of 18.

“Thankfully we have mutual aid,” Sherman explained. “But, it seems like we’re all short-handed during the day, so it still remains a problem.”

He said a large structure fire could take up to 18 firefighters to fight efficiently. During day time fires, there are rarely that many that can make it to a scene, Sherman said.

Some department now have what is called “automatic duel alerting,” which means the next-closest department is alerted the same time a fire is called in. Coal Grove and Upper Township have such an agreement, as well as Burlington and Fayette Township.

In Elizabeth Township, the rural setting proves to be a challenge during emergencies that occur during the day. Fire Chief Dale Waugh said several of his firefighters who can respond during the day are farmers, which presents many challenges that other departments don’t have to contend with.

“They are out in the fields. They are away from their trucks and they just can’t hear the calls that come in because many times they are running (farming) equipment,” Waugh said. “It’s farming season. They are trying to get crops in and out of the field, which makes responding difficult for them.”

The average response time for his department, Waugh said, is 10 minutes. He considers this good, especially since the firefighters have to cover a 52-square-mile area.

Where are all

the volunteers?

Being a volunteer firefighter is not easy. In fact, it is sometimes a stressful, thankless job, Boster said, which is why few men and women want to come aboard to help out local departments.

“It’s very time-demanding. It takes you away from your family and your other commitments,” he said.

Waugh said Elizabeth Township has seen many of its young people move away to find jobs and go to college, leading to fewer 20-somethings signing up as volunteers. No longer are they staying in the area to work on their family’s farm or at a local factory, they are leaving, Waugh said.

“It’s not like it was 20 years ago. They are just not interested (in volunteering). They go on to other places and that has made it difficult for us,” he said.

All volunteers are required to complete a 36-hour training course in firefighting before they are able to be a full-fledged part of a department. Waugh said he thinks this deters some people, too, although he knows the training and education are a necessity.

‘It gets in your blood’

Although they struggle with the problems of their departments, Boster, Waugh and Sherman said they have never though seriously about hanging up their turn-out gear. In fact, they say the need to serve their communities outweighs any of the other negative issues they contend with.

“You give a lot and you take a little,” Waugh said. “It gets in your blood and it stays there. The more you do it, the more you like it.”

For Sherman, being a firefighter runs in his family. His father, Jim, was chief until his death in 1999; that’s when the younger Sherman took over. All four of Sherman’s brothers have also been on the department.

“For many of us, it’s something you are born into,” he said. “It’s a very family-oriented thing. I love it.”

Public awareness

The county firefighters’ association is planning to use Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 9-14, as a week to boost public awareness of the importance of volunteer firefighters and the need for more of them. They are trying to plan a series of events to highlight what each of the 16 departments the county do and h the public can help.

Boster said there are volunteer opportunities at each of the departments, not just being wet and smoky in turn-out gear.

“There are so many ways people can help out. You do not have to be directly involved in putting out a fire,” he explained. “There are plenty of public outreach programs and other things that people can do to help out our departments.”

Boster said the message from all of the departments is clear.

“We need you.”