Local News

Shortage of Volunteer Firefighters Affects Response to Blaze

Posted January 29, 2007 5:21 p.m. EST
Updated January 29, 2007 6:40 p.m. EST

— 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.