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    Default 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."
    ...South of the James...By Invitation Only!

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    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.)
    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.
    310 active volunteers and only 6 available during the day? Anyone know why this number is so low as compared to the total active membership?
    Last edited by KenNFD1219; 03-26-2006 at 07:40 AM.
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    Goochland County is a near textbook example of a true bedroom community for Richmond and Charlottesville, with a very high ratio of residential to commercial property. Therefore a HUGE percentage of the volunteer membership is employed outside the county, and the majority of those who work in the county are employed by businesses who do not allow their workers to leave work to respond to an alarm.

    That said, I think the figure given may be understating it a bit...but very likely not by much.

    Also, recruitment suffers because many of Goochland's residents...particularly the newer ones... are in the upper socioeconomic class, and have little time for or interest in volunteering at the local fire company. I have seen cases of individuals who weren't even aware that their fire protection was provided by volunteers rather than a career department...through out the area.

    Rob
    ...South of the James...By Invitation Only!

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    6 out of 310 members??
    This is a simple management problem.
    Someone needs to check which shift the recruit works before you put them on.

    Stay Safe

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    Thumbs down Stupid................

    This looks like another classic example of the "News Media' failing to get it right. 6 is probably really 60 or something. Rob, I understand the "Bedroom Community" analogy, but there's more to the story. Employers don't let folks off for Fires? makes sense to me. The real problem is the "Paper" couldn't do a positive story if they wanted to, and they probably don't. After all, for whatever reason, Doom and Gloom seems to sell papers, upbeat does not. If I were in that area, I'd be working on "Outside the Box" Recruiting, not wringing my hands and whining over what used to be. We are also a largely bedroom community, none of our members get off work for Fires, and we aren't complaining about a lack of Volunteers.
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    Someone needs to check which shift the recruit works before you put them on.

    Who works shifts anymore?

    That reply is only half-sarcastic. But it is one of the factors affecting volunteer fire departments.

    Think of some of the major changes in employment patterns --
    I don't think anyone in my area runs three full or almost full shifts anymore.

    The manufacturers that are around are fairly highly-automated shops so they just don't have the "surplus" manpower of years ago. Over the last 5 years, the newspaper I used to work for probably cut in half the staff they had in the evenings laying out and printing the paper -- heck, one of my resume claims to fame is work I primarily did allowed us to go from being staffed until 2am to last person leaves at 6pm.

    (Side note on automation...Kocheck is near me...they load up blanks at the end of the shift, and return 16 hours later to find baskets full of finished products as the CNCs & Robots just run overnight unattended...which is pretty freakin' cool. Huge investment initially in the machines, but the owners just couldn't be cost competetive if they had to pay labor to produce the goods).

    (Side note #2...saw amazing stuff on Histodiscovertlc...Newport News using robots to do ship welding -- now that used to be a huge, good paying job in my area (Electric Boat)...seeing the NN robots, you'll never see a return of that trade in mass even if we start building boats like crazy again.)

    And the upper-middle-class bedroom communities aren't probably attracting the tele-marketers and retail store clerks who work the evening shift. And the noon-to-nine or so "evening" retail shift doesn't work real well -- they miss evening drills, but they're much tougher to try and fit in a daytime drill then someone working a four-to-midnight shift.

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    Dal:

    I know what you mean about automation. My dad worked for 30 years at a large newspaper here in CT. In 1968 his department had over 160 people on three shifts. Last I knew, they were down to 4 people on one shift-everyting is automated. The Kocheck shop must be something to watch.

    We need to look at the changes in our society and adapt. Recenty, I had a conversation with a member of a fire service training organization. Their membership is not very active, mostly because no one can or wants to go to meetings and hear a guest speaker talk about (fill in the blank) month after month.

    My town went from a large factory downtown with 6,000 employees in the 1960's to empty buildings by 1977. That also eliminated much of the volunteer FD who would respond when the fire whistle blew.

    The typical VFD membership I see around here has members in their late 40's to late 60's who have been members since they were kids and the 18 to 21 years olds still living at home. The group in the middle (22 to 45) either cannot afford to live in the town or work out of town and do not have the time or interest to volunteer.

    What are the answers? I wish I knew. Tax incentives and pensions are a tool but I do not know how effective they are in the long run. Outside the box recruiting may work, so could automatic mutual aid (not really a solution), live-in fire fighters, part timers, full timers, changing from volunteer to POC, consolidating fire departments, especially here where there are towns with 2 to 5 (7 in at least one town) independant FD's.

    A VFD having staffing and response problems needs to take a hard look at itself and leave the "we've always done it that way" attitude at the door.
    Last edited by KenNFD1219; 03-26-2006 at 08:24 PM.
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    "The most mediocre man or woman can suddenly seem dynamic, forceful, and decisive if he or she is mean enough." from "Crazy Bosses"
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    Indeed Ken...

    Take a small, essentially bedroom town like mine. Lose a couple firefighters who used to work factory shifts in the neighboring town who now work 1st shift half an hour away. Lose a couple farmers who are too old to continue interior operations. Lose a couple college kids, because recruiting is somewhat harder today. None of the losses is the end of the universe, but suddenly instead of having 9 or 10 interior guys around during the day, you have 3...

    And it's not just the factory automation.

    We have, on a broad scale, a loss of "spare labor."

    We don't stick build houses anymore -- you don't have the carpenters who can lay down their hammer to go fight a fire...you have crews that are coordinating with the delivery of the modular house, and have a crane waiting on site.

    Then you have service guys like plumbers who have to make an appointment with someone who took the afternoon off to meet them.

    And the old one-man excavation company that now has three or four guys because he can't afford to let his very expensive equipment ever sit idle -- and as soon as this job is done, has the next "just-in-time" job lined up he has to get to.

    Yet firefighting remains unique in our inability to automate it -- better hose, better engines, better radios help the efficiency, but it just doesn't eliminate people. And the need to very rapidly assemble the manpower.

    And that runs head-on into the sucking chest wound of municipal finances of school systems that routinely come in with needing "maintain current level of services" budgets that need increases at twice the rate of inflation and income growth.

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    Angry our future?

    my take on this is we have created most of the problems ourselves by not addressing the issues at the time they needed to be. leadership that does not lead, politics that have dug themselves a hole in the vol. service, not sticking together on volunteer issues on a national level! it amazes me that we have hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the nation and we are still talking about the same problems of volunteer recrutment and retension for how many years know and all we have is losap? we educate our kids in school to live on computers to get high paying jobs to compete globely and then send everything overseas instead of teaching the sence of community and what it means to give back. my dept. has problems with manpower during the day and there is five co.'s and when there is a call you here driver at this bldg, 2 no driver at this bldg, driver and 1 here and so on .but because of egos and the lack of forcite no one but two co's want to consolidate to put those five men on one truck to respond. we should be pushing the local and state politicians to give a tax break to businesses that allow vol. to respond. this debate will go on forever untill our vol. leaders stand up and take the heat for making the required changes needed to move into the future. if we continue to move forward with tunnel vision we will never see the turn that keeps our future alive.

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    I honestly beleive that in most cases, there are solutions to problems such as this. Will it take a diffrent approach to recerutiment and a true to commitment to retaining current members? Yes. Will it require re-directing some money into those efforts? Definatly. May it require a change in management? Possibly. But most times it can be done as long as they look outside of thier traditional way of thinking and accepting new solutions from other areas of the state or the country. Some ideas that they may have to adopt is targeted recruiting, multi-media/coordinated recruiting, alternative training times, crews, expanded automatic mutual aid and limited memebership (someone who just wants to drive for example .. we have that here and it works well). Well I certainly don't have all the answers I hope that they will do everything in thier power to retain a volunteer department, as in the long run, I beleive they can survive, and even thrive, in most communties.

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    Unhappy

    I volunteer in Goochland, in the East end of the county. Where the reporter got that there are only 6 daytime volunteers I have no idea. At my station alone we can expect 4 or 5 during the day, and we communicate with each other to make sure we will have a crew.

    So is there a staffing problem? Yes, especially at some of the companies in the West end of the county. The situation is improving, though, with increased efforts in recruitment/retention.

    Do we rely on other counties to fight our fires? Hell no. There are some parts of my station's district that are closer to a station in neighboring Henrico County, and if we get a report of a possible working fire, we call them for assistance. We also have a large commercial complex that we cannot handle on our own (15 5-6 story office buildings), so again if there is anything working we call for help.

    Alot of people are pretty upset about the article, it could have been really great for recruitment and public education had they gotten the facts right.

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    Daniel ...

    It can still be a really great article for recruitment.
    Your department needs to contact the paper and let them know they they have gotten some information wrong in a friendly, non-confrentational way. You need to give them the correct numbers in terms of personnel and apparatus that responds, and measures you have taken, such as automatic mutual aid to remedy the situation ....

    .... Then you need to talk about why there is a problem, and use this as a forum to reach out to people who may be interested in volunteering. If the paper is worth thier salt, they will allow you to talk about what it takes to become a volunteer, and how to get in touch with the department. They may even agree to come out and meet a few very carefully selected members of the department (good chance to show diversity; men/women, older/younger, etc which will help in recruiting) who have been slightly coached on what to say, and more importantly, what NOT to say. Maybe a few pictures. The important thing is take this opportunity to taslk directly tio your target audience, which in this case, are folks who are available daytime. certainly don't not talk to the other target audiences, but truly focus in on THIS one. You may have to make adjustments, such as provide daytime training. But in the long run this type of focus on an audience and use of the media will pay off. Think about supplementing this with an ad in the paper, yard signs, posters inkey community businesses, etc.

    All in all this could still work out right for you if handled in the correct way. Most papers are more than willing to give an agency that has been "hit" a chance to respond in the public eye and present thier side. And most papers will be willing to let you share recruiting information at this time as well. Beleive it or not this is an opportunity .. sieze it!!!!!

    If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at the e-mail addy in my profile.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Daniel4880
    I volunteer in Goochland, in the East end of the county. Where the reporter got that there are only 6 daytime volunteers I have no idea. At my station alone we can expect 4 or 5 during the day, and we communicate with each other to make sure we will have a crew.

    So is there a staffing problem? Yes, especially at some of the companies in the West end of the county. The situation is improving, though, with increased efforts in recruitment/retention.

    Do we rely on other counties to fight our fires? Hell no. There are some parts of my station's district that are closer to a station in neighboring Henrico County, and if we get a report of a possible working fire, we call them for assistance. We also have a large commercial complex that we cannot handle on our own (15 5-6 story office buildings), so again if there is anything working we call for help.

    Alot of people are pretty upset about the article, it could have been really great for recruitment and public education had they gotten the facts right.
    That makes FAR more sense than the figures quoted in the article...I was thinking around 25-30 available throughout the county during the day...possibly they meant 5-6 people per station.


    The Times-Dispatch has it's moments, both good and bad, and this one's turning out to be one of the less positive ones.

    LaFireEducator also made some good points in his posts, re: the media's coverage of the fire service )And indeed subjects in general) . I know I've seen them totally butcher articles about Chesterfield...both incidents and general information. They are usually pretty willing to correct mistakes when they're pointed out to them though.

    He also made some excellent points about using the paper as a recruitment tool...so good, in fact, that I can't think of anything to add what so ever.

    Rob
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    Thanks for all of the suggestions, I'll pass them along. Unfortunately, I don't know that the county administration will do much about it. From my point of view, they have been entirely ineffective at recruitment/retention.

    They have put in more and more hoops for new members to jump through. A prospective member has to fill out a preapplication, get an application, fill it out (including getting a copy of their own driving record, which is free in VA for volunteers), turn it in to the county where processing includes a background check, and takes about 6 weeks. The application is then returned to the company where it is voted on at the next monthly meeting. Also required is a county orientation class that is offered every other month, but it can be taken at any time during the application process. If a prospective wants to ride along, the form has to be notarized and signed by the county chief. Ridiculous.

    Retention-wise, we have pretty much nothing. We just got a free bowling night, and LOSAP is being talked about. Honestly though, LOSAP isn't really attractive for younger members, they won't see anything out of it for many, many years. Have their been any studies on the effectiveness of these programs?
    I think retention programs are neat, and fun, but I really doubt they help keep members (especially active members). People volunteer because of close friendships they make and the feeling of belonging, so let (even help!) individual companies develop that pride and solidarity you see in successful volunteer departments. I believe this pride would soon spill over to the county level.
    Last edited by Daniel4880; 03-28-2006 at 06:11 PM.

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