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Posted: June 7, 2014 10:00 p.m.

The last of the volunteer firefighters?

Volunteer firefighters were once dominant, but their numbers and importance are dwindling

Gabe Khouli/

Volunteer Station 8 has lost 11 of its 13 volunteers and will soon have a career firefighter.

Newton County’s volunteer firefighter base is shrinking. Will that leave behind a more reliable group or does it signal the beginning of the end?

For decades, volunteers were the dominant firefighting force in Newton County. The county didn’t build its first professional fire station until 1995, but in the 20 years since, the county’s huge population growth and shifts in public expectations have created greater demand for full-time firefighters.

Despite the volunteers’ declining role, or maybe because of it, the county began mandating stricter training requirements. Since then, the county has lost 21 volunteers and more could be leaving in future months.

County Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien said the training will ensure the volunteers are properly equipped to do their job while protecting themselves and others; however, some volunteers wonder whether they’re being unceremoniously pushed out.

The argument for change

For the past two years, Chief O’Brien has been crafting a strategic plan for his department to increase efficiency and improve fire protection around the county, which is one of Georgia’s largest in terms of land mass. An important part of the plan is overhauling the volunteer fire system.

O’Brien believes the volunteers remain an important part of the current fire protection network — he himself was a Newton County volunteer in the early 90s — but he’s moving the county toward a completely full-time system, a change he sees as inevitable and for the best.

Effectiveness

County-wide, O’Brien said volunteers only respond on 21 percent of calls in Newton County. While some volunteer stations have an 85 percent response rate, others almost never respond.

O’Brien believes that’s not a high enough response to justify the amount of money the county is investing in volunteers — not through pay, but through the fire trucks and other equipment being housed at the county’s six volunteer stations.

O’Brien previously told the Newton County Board of Commissioners in December he could save around $5 million over the next five years by better utilizing those volunteer trucks and equipment.

At the county’s seven career stations, O’Brien has nine first-line trucks — the top trucks in the best shape. He has three reserve trucks as backups. However, there are 11 volunteer trucks in total, and O’Brien said he feels comfortable using at least nine of the trucks as first-line or reserve trucks.

“Are they top of the line? No. But while most have some age, they have very little wear and tear. We have a 1991 truck that only has 12,000 miles. It’s still a very good, useable truck,” he said.

O’Brien said previously those equipment savings could be plowed back into personnel, as his top goal is to add around 30 more firefighters, bringing the total staff up to 105 employees, and fully staff three more fire stations with career firefighters (career is the preferred term for full-time, paid firefighters as opposed to the word professional).
“Volunteers are not free,” O’Brien said in an email.

“We invest a great deal of money in their training, their equipment, workers comp coverage, etc. We must make sure we invest our tax dollars wisely and ensure we get the best return for our money on this investment,” he said. “We are doing this through ensuring they are properly trained to respond and perform safely, they are qualified to serve the citizens and they are competent to perform the duties of a firefighter.”

The county also pays all of the utility costs and building maintenance cost for the volunteer fire stations, O’Brien said.

A better ISO

Three extra career stations would also help O’Brien achieve his goal of lowering the county’s ISO rating – a rating determined by a private company that measures a fire department’s ability to respond to and fight fires. The ISO rating is used by some insurance companies to determine premiums, which means a better rating can save residents and businesses money.

However, the ISO rating could also be improved in other ways. The ISO is based on several factors, some of which have nothing to do with volunteers; for example, the county’s lack of water supply in the rural parts of the county is the biggest factor preventing it from having a better rating.

However, response time, the number of firefighters working at a fire scene and the amount of training received by firefighters all play a part in the rating.

According to the ISO standards, a structure fire should have around 20 firefighters on scene to fight it. The number is high, but O’Brien explained it’s because multiple personnel are needed to work various pieces of equipment and the firefighters who have to actually fight the fire are supposed to frequently rotate for safety reasons. In addition, there is supposed to be a command officer and safety officer on the scene, in addition to others.

Newton County only runs about 12-14 career firefighters on a house fire, and O’Brien said in the seven years he’s worked full-time for Newton County — he previously worked for DeKalb County — he said he’s never seen more than three to four volunteers on an incident.

“I’m not knocking anyone. With their schedules and personal lives, it is the way it is. A couple stations I know will show up on every call, but other stations I may go months without seeing (on a scene),” O’Brien said.

Training

“There were no requirements for volunteers,” O’Brien said.

There are multiple level of volunteer firefighters in Georgia (see the related info titled “How to become a volunteer”), but O’Brien was concerned that there was no true oversight over the county’s volunteers.

The volunteer fire departments conducted weekly training, every Tuesday, but O’Brien said the training wasn’t always relevant to the volunteer’s role or modern firefighting issues.

“(As fire chief), I have a little heartburn over the lack of oversight over the volunteer side. If people were registered 20 years ago, the changes in technology and fire service has been astronomical,” he said. “I had heartburn and sleepless nights that the person out there fighting fires is expected to do things they haven’t been trained on.

“That’s why I felt we needed to put out a standard.”

Career firefighters have to complete 120 hours of annual training, O’Brien said; he thought that total was too intense for volunteers, so he implemented twice-a-month training days, also on Tuesday nights, for about 3 hours at the county fire headquarters.

He also required volunteers to spend 12 hours at career stations every quarter; in the event of a fire, the volunteer would ride with the career firefighters and help on any emergency calls.

He also required volunteers who drive fire trucks to prove they had the skills necessary to drive a truck. Truck drivers had to complete a list of tasks in a designated book.

O’Brien said Monday there six or seven volunteers who had completed their task books so far, including a few in the past couple of days. He said his major concern is that driving fire trucks is inherently dangerous, and it’s the county who owns the fire trucks and covers the trucks’ insurance.

“In the fire service, we have a lot of accidents. When you respond to 7,100 calls a year, you get in accidents. And when you get in an accident with a fire truck, it’s very dangerous, and you usually do have multiple thousands of dollars in damage and injuries, if not fatalities,” O’Brien said.

Questioning the changes

The three volunteers The News spoke to for this story all agreed that improved training was a good thing. Where they took issue with O’Brien’s plan, was in what they viewed as a lack of commitment to volunteers, a lack of respect and a lack of leeway for volunteers with particularly busy schedules.

Inconsistent training

Volunteer firefighters Connie Head, Ron Savage and Gene Williams all said the recent trainings – and past trainings – have been sporadic, including canceled trainings and, at times, trainings that appeared thrown together at the last minute.

Williams said he doesn’t blame the trainers; he blames the fact they haven’t been given enough time to prepare trainings.

“It hasn’t been very structured. Some of it seems like ‘How are we going to train the volunteers this week? What are we going to do?’” William said. “That gets frustrating.”

At the same time, both Williams and Head said they’ve enjoyed some of the training, including the opportunity to interact more closely with the career firefighters.

The volunteers said there have been times when they would show up on a scene and not be used because of a lack of familiarity, and possibly trust, on the career side.

“Getting to work with the career side, we get that relationship so everybody knows what everybody can do,” Head said.

However, the volunteers also took offense at the original implication that they weren’t keeping up with training. They all trained every Tuesday, and many of the volunteer trainers were state certified trainers, just like the career trainers.

Driving test disrespectful

One of the changes that’s most irked some long-time volunteers was being told they could no longer drive fire trucks without proving they had the basic skills.

Some volunteers have been driving trucks without incident for decades.

While O’Brien has been telling volunteers about the changes for the past two years, he only started enforcing the new requirements in January 2014. Head said there must have been some miscommunication about truck driving because many volunteers complained about being given their driving skills task book in January and being told they had to complete it by the end of March.

Not enough leeway

Being a volunteer comes with inherent pros and cons. The pros are that the volunteers are sacrificing their time and effort to help out a good cause, which is its own level of dedication. However, the con is that they’re inherently unreliable because their first priority is to their primary job and their family.

While that unreliability is part of what’s led O’Brien to implement changes, it’s also one of the reason volunteers believe there should be more leeway when it comes to completing training requirements.

Head, the station manager for volunteer Station 8, north of Oxford on Ga. Highway 81, has lost 11 of her 13 volunteers during the past several months.

“It’s just me and my captain,” Head said.

Some of her volunteers left because they didn’t want to do the county’s version of training, but Head said most volunteers left because they simply didn’t have time to meet the new requirements.

“A lot of people feel with volunteers that they should do training when they have time, and they shouldn’t be made to do it at a certain time,” Head said.

Williams said it may not seem hard to find time to put in 12 hours at a career station each quarter, but it’s not always that simple.

“If you have a family and second job, if you know how hard it is to go to Home Depot; it can take you two weeks,” Williams said. “That’s been difficult. Some of us really struggle to get it in there. I own my own business, so I’m on call 24/7. I’m sorry to the fire department, but if something comes up, boom, I’m gone. You don’t pay my salary.”

Lack of communication and respect

Despite the fact O’Brien has been talking about the changes for two years, Williams said the communication hasn’t always been consistent.

While O’Brien tells anyone to send him a text or email anytime, Williams said he’s not always able to get a response for days or longer.

He also said that some of the information contained in newspaper articles published in December and May was news to him.

Another major issue, mentioned by all three volunteers, is actually being paged every time there’s a fire they could respond to.

Savage said O’Brien’s figure of volunteers responding on 21 percent of calls is false, because volunteers aren’t contacted about every fire and sometimes volunteers are canceled before they arrive on scene.

Finally, Savage said the current administration’s ‘my way or the highway’ attitude rubbed him and others the wrong way. Others said many volunteers feel like they’re being pushed out.

“We know eventually Newton County is going to be all paid. We all understand that,” Williams said. “And I don’t mind it going full career. The county is getting bigger…The county and community eventually need a full career fire department.
“But there are ways about letting us go out gracefully than trying to get kicked out the door.”

Solutions

Williams said a concerted effort to improve the frequency and level of communication and to offer more respect to volunteers would go a long way in solidifying relationships with the remaining volunteers.

However, Savage said he’d like to see the county commissioners get more involved in the issue and investigate the issues for themselves. Savage said he has five young guys who want to become volunteers, proving there’s still interest.

“If you have people who want to volunteer, I don’t see holding them back because of technicalities,” Savage said.

Closing statements
“I still have a passion for the volunteer side, someone willing to do what they do for no money. That’s a huge sacrifice of their life,” O’Brien said in a two-hour sit down interview this week.

“I’m not trying to run them out, but I see a need to have changes.”

O’Brien said he’s already made changes to his requirements based on conversations with volunteers; however, he can’t compromise some standards. He also said the volunteers who are still around are further along in their training than they’ve ever been.

“The ‘fire business’ is not something you can haphazardly invest in or volunteer with. We make life or death decisions, drive half million dollar pieces of equipment and serve citizens during their worst times in their lives,” O’Brien said. “Our citizens and guests of Newton County deserve the peace of mind knowing their first responders are professionals and qualified to serve them, regardless of them being a volunteer or paid employee.

“A professional does not mean getting a paycheck it means being qualified and dedicated to a calling; I am working to provide a professional fire department to Newton County.”

Given the fact that most of the county’s 911 calls are medical calls, O’Brien said there’s probably a greater need for more volunteer EMTs and medical first responder. He said he’d also like to see more volunteers on the community service and fire education side as those roles would fill vital gaps for the department.

Meanwhile, the volunteer firefighters that remain seem to be trying to meet the more stringent requirements, but they admit it can be difficult and they understand why some have thrown in the towel.

“There have been a few items, when you say ‘Why am I doing it? Why don’t I just turn my stuff in?’ But I enjoy helping people and the career guys. I bend over backwards for them if I can; most all of them are really good guys.”

Head said it’s sad so many people have dropped out, and it’d be sadder to see the volunteer department end, but she’s hopeful a future remains.

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