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Shortage of Volunteer Firefighters Affects Response to Blaze

Posted January 29, 2007

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— Wilson County emergency officials say they don't have enough volunteer firefighters to adequately fight blazes like one that gutted an Elm City home Monday morning.

First-responders arrived on the scene within a few minutes, but they had to wait nearly 10 minutes for extra help to arrive before going inside. Homeowner Olivia Barnes, who lived in the residence with six others, could only watch helplessly as volunteer firefighters scrambled to save what they could.

“It was devastating,” said Barnes.

Investigators said a kerosene heater left too close to other flammable materials was to blame for Monday morning's fire. Barnes said she is relieved that everyone in her family got out safely, but sad that she lost her home of 20 years.

“Tears my heart all to pieces, to know that I have to start all over again,” Barnes said.

Several volunteer departments answered the call, but flames covered most of the ceiling before more help arrived. Emergency officials said that if they had more volunteers, they might have been able to save her home.

“We're strapped for resources in the volunteer fire world,” said Gordon Deno, Wilson County director of emergency management.

Deno said a sharp decline in volunteers makes it tougher to fight fires.

“In the last 10 years, we've decreased our manpower by 30 percent,” Deno said.

The North Carolina State Firemen's Association said it's a problem throughout the state. The organization is using grant money to fund a statewide marketing campaign to recruit more volunteers.

“Years ago, we had people beating our door down, saying, ‘Hey, I want to get an application to be on the fire department.’ Now, it’s not like that,” said Chief Lin Jones, president of the association.

Jones said many volunteer firefighters disappeared along with manufacturing and farming jobs. More people have to travel away from their rural towns to work, and some can't leave during the day. Some volunteers are required to have as many as 150 training hours before they can even go into a building.

“You are away from your family a lot of times when you could be home doing something else,” Jones said.

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  • chief70 Jan 31, 2007

    First of all i would like to say thank you to everyone that responded to the house fire on Monday.We had alot of people that missed all day of work from regular jobs including myself.The Toisnot Rural Fire Department is located at 102 West Main Street and serves the Toisnot Fire district as well as contracting to the Town Of Elm City for fire services Stop by and we will be glad to give you a membership application to join.
    We have 24 members on the roster which is all volunteer and don't get any pay.The 36 hours that is required is what has been required since i got on the department 25 years ago and the members that are active gets way more than the 36 hours .
    Here is just a few items that you may not know that we have to do .
    1.Do preincident surveys on all commercial structures in our district once a year.
    2.Inspect and flow all fire hydrants in our districts
    3.Test all fire hose once a year.
    Just these above items require more than 36 hours to get it done in a year.

  • rss0424 Jan 30, 2007

    I am Firefighter/EMT with Silver Lake. We are a 100% volunteer department. We are essentially on call 24/7 and don't get paid a dime. We do it to serve our community and protect life and property of people we don't even know. Then we devoted many hours away from our families just to train to know what to do when we are called upon to mitigate what incident it may be. It maybe a house fire like we had yesterday or a medical emergency or even a vehicle accident. People want to give us less and less money and expect us to do more and more. And yes, I was there yesterday morning. I was on the second engine to arrive. Once we got there an interior attack could then be SAFELY made. As I walked around to the side where the fire started you could already see flames in the attic area. We did what we could and what we thought was right at that time. The 10 minute gap was not done out of ignorance it was out of us looking out for our safety.

  • sarahbethff954 Jan 30, 2007

    I am a volunteer with Silver Lake Fire Department, i also responded to that fire. I think it is outrageous for people to come on here and criticize what we do. Do you run out of the safety of your home in the middle of the night to help others? Do you have family that stays awake wondering if this will be your LAST call? I do, as do many volunteer firefighters. There is a shortage of volunteer firefighters in the United States. If you have a problem with how we do things, go get an application at your nearest volunteer department. I go to school FULL TIME with a heavy work load, I work 30 hours a week, I go to Raleigh to see my mother, and I still find time to respond to calls. Thank you to those that realize what we go through and respect what we do. To those that think we need help from other places, check your priorities! Do not insult the people that risk thier lives even for people that do not respect them. I am proud to be a volunteer firefighter!

  • tthompson2005 Jan 30, 2007

    Harrison_Bergeron--I am one of 31 volunteer firefighters/first responders with Silver Lake Volunteer Fire Dept in Wilson.I am an R.N. by profession.I work during the day,as does most of our department.Do you volunteer to get up in the middle of the night when it is 17 degrees outside and go to a house fire of someone you don't know?Do you volunteer to respond during hurricanes, lightning storms,or ice storms?WE DO!We have training mandated by the state.We take this extra time out of our busy lives. Where do you volunteer?What do you give back to your community? Feel free to contact your local VOLUNTEER fire department. I'm sure they would be happy to give you an application.Or better yet,come down to Wilson County,feel free to stop by any of the fire departments you just bashed and insulted.We'll happily give you an application to come walk in our boots for a while.

  • 1firefighternc Jan 30, 2007

    I am one of the firefighters who responded to this fire. I had just left my job as a paid firefighter and responded. I volunteer as a means of giving back to the community and helping my neighbors. The shortage problem is not isolated to Wilson County or even North Carolina. You can pick any fire department in America whether it be paid or volunteer and manpower is always an issue. The problem is volunteer is just that there is no pay and the average person is not around during the day because they commute to work. We all have more personnel available at night most of the time. There were a hand full of us in the initial 15 minutes that are trained to perform interior fire attack but suppose the 4-5 of us that do it as a career were on shift. We tend to hear others bash what volunteers do or dont do at fires but how many come down to the departments and ask, "what can I do to help?"

  • Harrison Bergeron Jan 30, 2007

    It sounds like we need to lower the standards and just import some "guest volunteers". Perhaps from Mexico, or India...

  • exxe75 Jan 29, 2007

    It is sad to see the volunteer firefighter/EMT profession slipping into obscurity. Like the other commenter stated, there is a lot of training involved to be a firefighter. Firefighting is a certified profession now. With this training an new recognition, potential volunteers are being lured to the bigger cities and counties that have paid full-time staff. And a lot of the time, these same professionals don't want to go home and spend their time off responding to calls at the volunteer stations. I've been there, done that, and spending time with my family at home is very important. I love my job in emergency services, but one is enough.

  • saywhaaaaat Jan 29, 2007

    I wish Elm City could get their own Fire station with enough people. Not to ALWAYS rely on volunteers. My uncle house burnt to the ground last year about this time and it was terrible thank god he had insurance but it doesn't help any. There was ALOT of memories in that home. I feel for the family that had to go through this. All I have to say is "I'm sorry this happened and may God be with you in every step to get through it"

  • smokie_robinson Jan 29, 2007

    As a former Fighter, I can relate to this problem. Being a volunteer firefighter is not was it was years ago. It's not a matter of going on a fire call at any given time of the night or day. You are required by the state to maintain at least 36 hours of training a year, not to mention all the required classes. There over 20 classes. It's a lot of schooling. There is way more time invested in volunteering than most realize. It's not necessarily wanting to, but more so having the time to invest in what goes along with volunteering now days.