Helping Spark A Fire To Gain More Volunteer Firefighters
At the Summerfield Fire Department, Reese Robinson kneels next to a mannequin and performs chest compression.
The 14-year-old is the youngest member in a CPR training class. She’s part of the junior firefighter’s program called “Explorers” with the fire department.
Robinson was influenced by her mom, Janelle, who is a firefighter with the department.
“She came home telling stories about how much fun she had on training and on calls and I thought it sounded fun and interesting and a good life skill,” Reese said.
It’s a good thing she’s interested in volunteering at the department: in Summerfield and across the state, fire departments are facing a decline in volunteer firefighters.
In Guilford County alone, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped from 1,500 to 300 in the last two decades.
Volunteers don’t get paid and usually have a full-time job in addition to volunteering. It’s something that Anthony Howerton doesn’t mind juggling. He’s been a volunteer firefighter for 47 years. Now at 62, he’s the oldest volunteer firefighter in the CPR training class.
“As long as I stay healthy and can provide quality performance to the fire service then I will stay active,” he said.
Summerfield Fire Department
Summerfield is a bedroom community in rural Guilford County. Its fire department is a combination fire department, meaning it’s made up of paid firefighters and volunteer firefighters. They currently have 40 volunteers, but out of the 40, only 10 are active.
Fire Chief Chris Johnson says that’s a problem, especially in a town that has no fire hydrants.
“If I have to set up a water point, that means more personnel is going to have to set up that water point,” he said. “I got to have tanker drivers on any fire call to dump the water and then come back. That’s taking away people from the actual fire scene itself.”
To become a volunteer, you must apply, have a background check and receive training through programs at either Guilford Technical Community College or Rockingham Community College. Volunteers must be 18 or older, but some departments have explorer volunteer firefighter programs to prepare kids 14 to 17 for possible careers in firefighting.
Johnson said there’s not enough young people coming to balance out the older volunteers who are aging out.
“They’re not staying,” he said. “They’re not being that 30, 40-year person. They’re getting in here for a year or two and then they’re gone. And that does not help us out.”
Between 2017 and 2018, North Carolina lost 300 volunteer firefighters. The International Association of Fire Chiefs received a two-year grant, part of FEMA’s “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency” grant program. The goal is to recruit more volunteer firefighters to departments across the state is helping to solve this issue. The grant is designed to put out more online marketing material, TV and radio commercials and more to attract people to fire departments.
Tracy Mosley handles grants at the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs. He says out of the 236 online interest forms he’s received, 134 are volunteers with fire departments.
“Sometimes you can spark a person’s interest by just letting them get in in a support role then they see the real difference that some of the other one’s are making within the community,” he said.