Volunteer Fire Companies Turning to Paid Employees for Help

Editors Note

INDIANA, Pa. (AP) -- As a firefighter for a volunteer fire company, Paul Koons does everything -- from changing the toilet paper to driving the truck, conducting fire drills at the old folks' home to handling burgeoning administrative duties in an age of dwindling volunteerism.

He's paid for the work, the only paid firefighter from Indiana County in central Pennsylvania. But he's far from unique.

From coast to coast, volunteer fire companies are hurting because fewer people work near home, as small towns become bedroom communities for people who work in bigger cities. More families have two working parents, leaving less time for volunteer work. As a result, Koons is one of a growing number of paid employees at otherwise volunteer fire departments.

''It's due to the economy. You don't have the luxury of as many volunteers,'' said Koons, an Indiana Fire Association volunteer since 1991, who became the department's $30,000-a-year administrator in January.

''It used to be the barber quit cutting hair and the banker left the office and everybody waited until they got back from fighting the fire,'' said Jack Carriger, the paid chief in Stayton, Ore., where 65 volunteers and a handful of paid firefighters serve four communities, 107 square miles and about 15,000 residents. ''But that isn't a profitable way to do business and people aren't doing that anymore.''

Many of Carriger's volunteers work in Salem, 12 miles northwest of town, or in Portland, 50 miles due north, since Stayton's logging industry died a slow death beginning in the 1970s.

More than 19,000 fire companies out of 26,000 nationwide are all-volunteer. Only 1,878 are fully paid and the rest are volunteer departments with at least one paid employee, said Heather Schafer, executive director of the National Volunteer Fire Council.

''The tradition that the fire service has carried on for hundreds of years is that we're all volunteer and we can do it ourselves,'' Schafer said. ''But today's challenges have made them look to alternate methods of recruiting people and how to staff our departments.''

This year, Congress approved $65 million to help paid and volunteer fire departments retain and hire new staff. Starting May 1, departments began applying for the grants, similar to federal COPS funds used to hire municipal police during the Clinton administration.

Complicating matters is that fire departments are becoming busier and more diverse. Even departments that don't handle emergency medical services now deal with hazardous materials and counterterrorism _ two duties unheard of decades ago. And record keeping is at a premium. If fire companies can't document training, residents can see their fire insurance premiums increase.

''We answered about 50 calls a year about 25 years ago, and last year it was 1,201,'' said Jeff Cash, the paid chief of the Cherryville Fire Department in North Carolina.

Adding EMS service in the 1990s caused Cash's department to have a boom in calls even as the local economy went bust _ losing a major trucking firm and a baker's dozen of textile manufacturers.

''Most of my guys worked for those places and now they have to seek employment in Charlotte,'' Cash said. ''So now they're driving about an hour to work, working eight hours, and driving back an hour. Once you figure in time for their families and other things, there's not a lot of time left for the fire service.''

Cash is one of nine paid employees in an otherwise volunteer department with about 40 total members in a town of 5,400 residents. Two paid staff members work shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, at any one time.

''For a house fire I need two engines and a ladder, which means I need about 12 guys,'' Cash said. ''And during daytime hours during the week, I rarely meet that.''

Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann, who's also an assistant fire chief in Mifflin County, said some volunteer companies hire drivers to answer calls from 9-to-5 weekdays, when the bulk of their members are working.

''In a lot of cases fire chiefs find themselves going to second and third alarms,'' Mann said. ''It's not unusual to see 10 or 12 vehicles called to a scene and just two being used because the point (of calling in the extra companies) was just to get enough firefighters there.''

Cash said his department uses the Fire Corps model, which grew out of the nation's Homeland Security efforts: finding locals to help out without fighting fires. A professional grant writer from Cherryville now volunteers to do the same thing for the department.

Carriger's department has an $800,000 annual budget, funded by a small property tax levy. That amount is dwarfed by the economic value of the volunteers, yet Carriger and others find themselves explaining to the public why a volunteer fire company needs paid employees.

''It's just driven by necessity. It's a matter of informing the public that it's not all going to be free anymore,'' Carriger said.

Koons said some longtime volunteers have also questioned why he is being paid.

''They'll say, 'But when my dad was here, it wasn't an issue.' Well, back when your dad was here everybody worked within three blocks of the firehouse, too,'' Koons said.