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SOUND THE ALARM: Volunteer firefighters in short supply locally

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By Molly Haines

Jonesville Fire Chief Allen Cammack remembers well the day he felt called to serve his community. A house fire extinguished earlier that day by the volunteer fire department had reignited and manpower was in short supply.

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“After it rekindled, I remember the fire whistle going off several times trying to get someone to come in and help,” he said. “I thought, ‘You know, I’m here, I’m available and I can do this.’”

Cammack, then 24, joined the Jonesville Volunteer Fire Department, becoming a certified firefighter in 2000, and has remained faithful to the community’s fire service ever since.

Today, volunteers like Cammack are becoming harder and harder to find. The dwindling number of new prospects mixed with an aging volunteer force has Cammack and many other local firefighters wondering what the future of Owen County’s volunteer departments will be.

The problem is neither new or unique to Owen County. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, 70 percent of the nation’s firefighters are volunteer, with about a third of small town volunteer firefighters over the age of 50.

“You can look at all your organizations — Lyons, Rotary, whatever — everybody’s struggling for people because nobody wants to volunteer anymore,” Owenton Fire Chief J.O. Powers said.

Nearly 40 years ago, the Owenton/Owen County Volunteer Fire Department boasted a roster of 50 men and women, averaging at least 25 volunteers per run, according to Powers.

The lack of interest in volunteerism coupled with the decline of local business and more rigorous state-mandated training has left the department with 32 men and women on their roster. Only 12 of those are considered active, according to Owen County Fire Chief Robb Chaney. The average number of volunteers responding to a call is a grim 4.5, with nearly all of those responding over the age of 60.

“Once we started losing businesses in the county, it became a domino effect,” Owenton Assistant Fire Chief David Lilly said.

“We don’t have as many people working in town as we used to when Schlumberger was in operation,” Powers added. “At one time we had nine that worked at the factory that they would release if it were a major fire.”

Volunteer firefighting is also a bigger time commitment than it once was, with the state fire marshal’s office requiring a total of 150 hours of training within two years of joining a department to become a certified firefighter. After reaching 150 hours, the firefighter must receive at least 20 hours of training per year to remain certified.

“You have to consider that a lot of people work out of the county now,” Chaney said. “They’re tied up 40 hours a week, then have family time, kids, sports and other activities. It’s not like being right here in Owen County where you can leave if the tones drop.”

While area departments struggle to find recruits, New Liberty Fire Chief Greg Davis has gained 10 new members in recent years by utilizing social media outlets like Facebook for recruitment and retention.

Of the 10 newest members, Davis said almost all of them are within 40 hours of reaching certification, with four of those members taking and passing an EMT certification class.

“We were in the same boat a lot of these other departments are in,” Davis said. “We put it on Facebook that we were interested in new people and all kinds of people that like to work and work for free came rolling in. It’s probably the best group of guys I’ve ever had.”

Davis became a member of the New Liberty Fire Department at 14 years old — 44 years later he agrees that being a firefighter is a young man’s job.

New Liberty’s 21 active members range in age from 23-70, but Davis believes there’s a place for everyone in the department.

“You know what kind of computer age we’re in,” Davis said. “We could give a person a full-time job just on the computer. We end up writing a lot of grants, a lot of paperwork to the fire commission and those people have a special place here.”

When it comes to recruitment of younger volunteers, Cammack said many millennials simply aren’t interested in the amount of training and hard work it takes to become a certified firefighter.

“Firefighting is not what it used to be,” Cammack said. “The state has come along and put so many regulations on things, which is good — but when you have them tell you that you have to have so many hours before you can do this or that, these younger kids don’t want to hear that. They want to go out, jump on that truck and go on that run. They don’t want to spend all the time it takes to be able to get to that truck.”

Since joining the Monterey Fire Department in 1996, Chief Larry House has watched his numbers dwindle from as many as 25 to his current roster of 15. Like other area departments, House said Monterey is also in need of younger recruits.
Monterey’s membership ranges in age from 21-68, with several members residing in and around the Franklin County community of Swallowfield.

“We’ve gone house to house and talked to people,” House said. “They say they’re interested, but they never show up. Everybody’s busier than what they used to be. You’ve got to get that 150 hours — a lot of people just say they can’t do it.”

For House and the members of the Monterey department, mutual aid agreements with other agencies in the county make all the difference.

Under the agreements, all departments automatically respond to a structure fire with at least one tanker and manpower. A department may also call for backup from another agency during other emergency events such as a grass fire or vehicular accident.

“We’re all needing the help,” House said. “That’s why we have mutual aid. We’d all be in bad shape without it.”

While some chiefs believe Owen County’s departments could eventually become paid, Owen County Judge-Executive Casey Ellis said he could one day see the departments pooling their resources and consolidating under one name.

“The lack of volunteers pushes a lot of communities in the paid direction,” Ellis said. “The funding for a paid department is ultimately your deciding factor — that would be something the community would have to decide. I think a consolidation of resources would happen before any sort of paid department would happen, merely because of a lack of funding.”

As for today, a majority of the chiefs believe those discussions would come years from now, and each agreed they would continue seeking out recruits and serving their respective communities.

“That’s what we’re here for — we’re here to help you,” Cammack said. “My big thing is if I needed help, I would want to know that someone is coming to help me. If I can offer that to someone, hopefully, they will do the same for me someday.”