FIRE-RESCUE VOLUNTEERS: Tradition in peril?
From the Richmond Times Dispatch this morning:
FIRE-RESCUE VOLUNTEERS: Tradition in peril?
As Goochland's population grows, pressure builds for county to go to a paid staff
BY LEA SETEGN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Mar 26, 2006
Ashley Cousins was 16 and looking for an extracurricular activity when she saw a sign that changed her life.
Volunteers were needed at Goochland County Fire-Rescue Company 3 in Centerville, according to the sign outside the station. Cousins wanted to help the community, so she signed up.
Now, the 18-year-old Cousins is an emergency-medical technician for Company 3 and has changed her career choice from police officer to forensic nursing. She's also working toward become a firefighter, commuting from Longwood University three days a week to attend Goochland's training classes.
"I got into it . . . not knowing if I would like it a lot," Cousins said. "I just fell in love with it. I became more and more interested in it, and more and more involved."
People such as Cousins are the heart, soul and future of the all-volunteer Goochland County Fire-Rescue Department Volunteer Association Inc.
Without more people like her, the department will not be able to remain an all-volunteer organization.
That's a fate that none of the volunteers want to see come to pass -- at least not anytime soon.
"It's almost inevitable, at some point in time, that the county is going to go [to a] paid [staff]," said Dean Dunn, a 30-year volunteer veteran and now district chief at Fire Company 4 in the county's western end. "There's just a countywide consensus to try to stay volunteer as long as possible."
The volunteer Fire Department was founded in Manakin in 1951, with a privately owned fire truck. The first rescue squad formed in the mid-1960s, and today, there are six stations around the county that provide fire and rescue services.
Since 1990, Goochland's population has grown by a third, from about 14,000 to almost 19,000, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate.
The resulting increase in calls for fire and rescue services has placed a strain on the department's 310 active volunteers. That's up from 267 active volunteers last year. (Over the past 10 years, the average number of active volunteers has been around 265.)
"It's really hard to ask a volunteer to run three to four calls per day and expect them to get anything done at home," said department Chief Ken Brown.
As the county continues to grow, and calls for service continue to increase, more volunteers will be needed. If the volunteer ranks don't grow, county officials may have to hire a paid staff to help with coverage.
This scenario has played out in a number of Richmond-area counties, including Dinwiddie and Hanover, which are similar to Goochland in their rural character.
Already in Goochland, some rescue services are provided by a paid staff. Since 1998, the county has paid Lifeline Ambulance Service to provide emergency-medical technicians during shifts that volunteers can't cover.
Lifeline provides 10 employees who handle rescue coverage at three stations Monday through Friday during the day, and overnight Sunday through Thursday. Nine of the 10 employees are Goochland fire-rescue volunteers as well.
"Daytime coverage is always an issue," said Kathy Palmer, a Lifeline employee and the rescue captain for Crozier Company 2. "It's not like 20 years ago, when you could leave your job [to answer a call]."
Fire coverage in Goochland is still an all-volunteer affair, save for the paid department chief and two deputy chiefs.
But during the day, aid from other counties is necessary to fight a fire, because there are only about six volunteers available to join the three paid staff members. Those volunteers are lucky to have Goochland employers who let them leave work to answer calls.
"Those are the people who are our saving grace right now," Brown said.
Attracting volunteers, particularly those who are available during the daytime, has always been a priority for Goochland's six fire-rescue companies.
The companies depend primarily on word-of-mouth to bring new folks in, as active volunteers or auxiliary members. Companies also hold open houses and other events at the stations and mail fliers to county residents asking for help.
Goochland High School participates in the effort as well, offering a fire-rescue class that often results in students becoming volunteers. Students have to be 16 to become a volunteer.
Brandon Tyler Proffitt became a volunteer six years ago, after taking the class. He is now a Lifeline employee and a volunteer at Centerville Company 3.
"It opens the door for younger people to get involved," he said. "It really keeps kids together at the firehouse, hanging out and having fun instead of going out and partying."
However, with the ever-increasing need for volunteers, Goochland's companies may need to adopt some new recruitment strategies.
Company 1 in Manakin is looking at offering a live-in option that has successfully attracted volunteers in Northern Virginia and Maryland.
For a nominal fee, a volunteer could live at the station house in exchange for being available to run calls, said John Waechter, the company's district chief. The program would provide affordable housing for someone who wants to live in Goochland while bolstering the Fire-Rescue Department.
"We can preserve the volunteer system by trying to do our own housing," Waechter said. "We've got to prove that the program works . . . then once it's opened up, there are no [geographic] boundaries to where we can recruit."
The pride that fire-rescue volunteers take in their work is at the core of the desire to remain an all-volunteer department. Helping their neighbors at a time of need is one of the main reasons many volunteers stay with the department for decades.
"I still run [calls] here regularly, even being away at school," said Cousins, the Longwood University student. "We aren't paid to come out here and do it. We do it because we love it and want to help out everyone that we can.
"That's what we're here for."