Volunteer fire crew vestige of past

Staff Writer

Last update: July 22, 2005

LAKE HARNEY WOODS -- When the beeping of Jay Hanicak's pager rousts him in the middle of the night, he never knows exactly what's coming next.
In nine years as a volunteer firefighter in and around the southern Volusia County outpost of Lake Harney Woods, Hanicak has been called out for heart attacks real and imagined; smoldering stumps and raging wildfires; harmless rollovers and tragic, life-extinguishing car wrecks.

"We've helped a lot of people," the 41-year-old auto body shop owner said recently, as he stood in the fire station's garage avoiding the remnants of a hard rain. "There's other parts of it that just ain't no fun."

Among rural firefighters, Hanicak's experiences may not be unusual, but his situation -- and that of the handful of other firefighters who volunteer at the Lake Harney fire station and live nearby -- soon will be.

In May, the County Council agreed to a plan to hire six full-time firefighters for the volunteer-only Indian Mound station on Stone Island. When the change is complete later this year, the Lake Harney volunteers will be staffing Volusia County's last volunteer-only fire station -- a vestige of the history of firefighting and a mark of the evolution of the county's Fire Services, which was once staffed almost entirely by volunteers.

"This is running on the same format as Ben Franklin, that whole idea," said Cmdr. Jeff Smith, a career firefighter who oversees the Lake Harney station, referring to the Founding Father who established the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia in 1736. "It's a neighborhood station."

While there are volunteer-only stations in both unincorporated Flagler County and Bunnell, all of Volusia's city fire departments are made up of either career firefighters only or career firefighters backed by volunteers.

Driven by population growth, Volusia County Fire Services -- which handles the unincorporated areas plus Pierson, DeBary, Lake Helen and Oak Hill -- is following suit.

But because of the Lake Harney station's low call volume and remote location -- by road, travelers from any of Volusia's cities must go through either Seminole or Brevard County to get there -- there are no plans for it to go to full-time staffing.

It will a be a link to the division's past.

Shortly after Fire Services was created 19 years ago, it had about 360 volunteers and 49 full-timers. Next year's budget calls for 200 volunteers and 211 full-time positions.

The transition is part of a major overhaul that includes upgrading staffing at several full-time stations to clear the way for closest unit response agreements with cities. Mandated for 2006 by county ordinance, those agreements will require the closest available firefighters to respond to an emergency medical call regardless of where it comes from.

"In the time I've been here, I don't know that I can remember a department that's undergone any bigger change than Fire Services in the last several years," said county spokesman Dave Byron.

Along the way , the division's budget has grown by nearly 10 times and the number of calls has more than doubled.

Handling so many calls was unreasonable for a force heavily weighted toward volunteers, who must balance jobs and family with firefighting responsibilities, said Chief Jim Tauber.

"A lot of them are very dedicated, but they can't get up every night and work," Tauber said.

Fire Services backs up volunteer stations with full-time stations. But in both Stone Island and Seville -- where another station was recently switched to full-time, paid staffing -- volunteers were sometimes unavailable to respond, creating too much reliance on farther away stations, he said. Firefighters from both the county's Osteen station and a nearby Seminole County station also respond in the Lake Harney area.

With increased time demands at home and increased training demands for volunteers, it's also tougher to recruit and retain them, Tauber said.

Volunteers do not receive payment for emergency responses, but do receive limited compensation for drills. After 10 years, they are eligible for pensions if they have gained the necessary credits for such things as training, drills and emergency responses.

But it's not about money, said district officer Bob Eller, a 15-year volunteer at the Lake Harney station.

"We do it because we live here -- since it's sure as heck not for the pay," said Eller, 66, who owns a water treatment company.

Thank goodness they do serve, said Lake Harney Woods resident Charlie Mitchell.

His father-in-law has required emergency assistance for heart problems, said Mitchell -- himself a 68-year-old diabetic.

"We have a group of highly trained and specialized volunteer firefighters, and we treasure the dickens out of them," Mitchell said. "It's just inconceivable this community could exist without that volunteer fire station."