North Carolina Volunteer Fire Units Feel Strain

Brian Robinson wasn't there that weekday in March, when the call for medical help was dispatched to the Alexis firehouse. And neither was anyone else.

Robinson, chief of the Alexis station, says that unanswered call, a first in 20 years for the Alexis Volunteer Fire Department, was an embarrassing reminder that the world has changed -- and volunteer fire departments need to catch up.

To cope with increasing demand, and decreasing volunteer availability, Lincoln County volunteer fire departments are becoming more reliant on paid employees.

It's a trend, they say, that shows no signs of letting up, and a problem that's not unique to Lincoln County. A Pennsylvania legislative committee released a report last week identifying critical shortages of volunteer firefighters in that state.

If a proposed budget is approved by Lincoln County commissioners next week, Alexis will be getting July 1 its first ever paid staff -- two part-time firefighters. Volunteer fire departments in East Lincoln and Denver are also hoping the budget will accommodate their pleas for additional employees to better respond to the calls they now get.

Four years ago, East Lincoln added its first paid staff; today the station has six paid firefighters and 36 volunteers. Alexis is considering for the first time paying its 26 volunteers based upon the number of calls to which they respond. It's an incentive, Robinson said, to roll out of bed at 3 a.m.

And Denver is hoping to secure a $500,000 federal grant to provide benefits such as paying volunteers $10 per call or subsidizing college education.

Robinson is an unpaid volunteer. When he's not at the station, or with his 2-month-old daughter, he's working as a full-time Gastonia firefighter. He's seen the steady stream of volunteer firefighters slow over the years, since state-mandated requirements have become stringent and hectic work schedules don't allow commuters to volunteer.

"It's not like back in the '80s when an abundance of people wanted to join," said Robinson, who first became a junior volunteer firefighter at age 13, following in the steps of his father. Today his younger brother also is a firefighter. "It used to be that there were all these teenagers who wanted to join. I don't know what the solution is."

The most critical times for Alexis and other volunteer fire departments are during the workday when the fire stations are sometimes unstaffed. If an unmanned station does not respond to a call, then the nearest fire station is notified. This means it could take longer for a firefighter to get to the scene of an incident.

Gone are the days when most volunteers worked in or near their fire districts and had employers' approval to miss work for a call, fire officials said.

Those were also the days when call volume was dramatically lower. Alexis, for example, only received one or two calls a week about a decade ago. Now the station gets up to three or four calls a day, with 470 calls last year. Denver responded to about 850 calls last year, and calls have been increasing by 10 percent a year, said Jeff VonCannon, assistant fire chief.

Fire officials realize the end of fire stations staffed mostly by volunteers is nearing. Growth, they said, has been the most punishing factor. With every new subdivision comes new calls and increased traffic slowing down their response times.

"I think eventually mostly volunteers will go by the wayside," said Jason Saine, public information officer for the East Lincoln Fire Department and a volunteer firefighter.

As Lincoln continues to grow, the constraints on volunteers and their fire stations will only continue to get worse, firefighters said.

"We're kind of playing catch-up because our area is changing so fast," Saine said.

He pointed out that Lincolnton's fire department employs 20 paid firefighters to patrol a community of 10,000, while East Lincoln's six paid staffers, plus volunteers, are responsible for more than 11,000 people.

"We're looking into the future knowing that we're a small city ... whether it's recognized as a city or not, and we have to protect the people that live there," he said.

Another complication is that state insurance regulations consider three volunteer firefighters equal to one paid firefighter when responding to a call. And state insurance ratings require that volunteer departments respond to emergencies with certain numbers of firefighters, which can be difficult for some stations.

Officials from both Denver and East Lincoln agree a suggestion from commissioners to combine their fire districts would hurt, not help, the situation. They say the expanded area would hurt their insurance ratings.

But despite all of the concern over the future of volunteer fire departments, the firefighters themselves have faith.

"They will never go away completely," VonCannon said.