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Helping Spark A Fire To Gain More Volunteer Firefighters

Volunteer firefighter Joshua Conway, 19, brings his turn out gear into the Summerfield Fire Department on Jan. 10, 2019. Across the state and nationally, fire departments are facing a shortage of volunteer firefighters,  particularly in rural areas.
Lynn Hey
/
For WUNC
Volunteer firefighter Joshua Conway, 19, brings his turn out gear into the Summerfield Fire Department on Jan. 10, 2019. Across the state and nationally, fire departments are facing a shortage of volunteer firefighters, particularly in rural areas.

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.

Summerfield Fire Chief Chris Johnson, left, talks with full time fire fighters Capt. Michael Capps, left, and Lt. Zack Hardy, in his office Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
Summerfield Fire Chief Chris Johnson, left, talks with full time fire fighters Capt. Michael Capps, left, and Lt. Zack Hardy, in his office Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C.

Volunteer decline

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.

Anthony Howerton a volunteer with the Summerfield Fire Department,  on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
Anthony Howerton a volunteer with the Summerfield Fire Department, on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C.

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.”

Reese Robinson, 14, center, listens to instructions from James Albright, left, director Guilford Emergency Services, as she and her mother, Janelle Robinson, participate in CPR training with other volunteer and paid fire fighters on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2019
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
Reese Robinson, 14, center, listens to instructions from James Albright, left, director Guilford Emergency Services, as she and her mother, Janelle Robinson, participate in CPR training with other volunteer and paid fire fighters on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2019 at Summerfield Fire District headquarters. Robinson is in the explorer program, established for those not yet 18 years old.

Solutions

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.

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS:

Summerfield Fire Department feels the effects as volunteer firefighters are in short supply locally and nationally, particularly in rural areas Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / WUNC
/
WUNC
Summerfield Fire Department feels the effects as volunteer firefighters are in short supply locally and nationally, particularly in rural areas Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C.

Reese Robinson, 14, left, watches a CPR training video with other volunteer and paid fire fighters, the course is a mandatory requirement for fire departments yearly training.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
Reese Robinson, 14, left, watches a CPR training video with other volunteer and paid fire fighters, the course is a mandatory requirement for fire departments yearly training. Robinson is in the explorer program for those not yet 18 years old and attended with her mother, Janelle Robinson a volunteer fire fighter at Summerfield Fire Department Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Mackenzie Miloro, 27, a paid fire fighter with the Summerfield Fire Department Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C. Summerfield Fire Dept. uses a mixture of paid and volunteer fire fighters to staff the district's three stations.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
Mackenzie Miloro, 27, a paid fire fighter with the Summerfield Fire Department Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C. Summerfield Fire Dept. uses a mixture of paid and volunteer fire fighters to staff the district's three stations.

Chris Johnson, Fire Chief, Summerfield Fire Department, feels the effects as volunteer firefighters are in short supply locally and nationally, particularly in rural areas Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
Chris Johnson, Fire Chief, Summerfield Fire Department, feels the effects as volunteer firefighters are in short supply locally and nationally, particularly in rural areas Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Summerfield, N.C.

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