When duty calls: A critical shortage of volunteer firefighters threatens a time-honored American tradition
Little boys worship them. Bruce Springsteen memorialized them. The helpless count on them.
Volunteer firefighters are a symbol of American strength and determination, pillars in their community who answer the call of duty when friends and neighbors need them most.
“When we come in contact with someone, it is usually the worst day of their life and they expect you to help,” said David Blackburn, a mill worker, father and volunteer with the North Canton Fire Department.
“Every call you go on, there is somebody waiting and watching for you. You can see their relief when you pull up,” added Joe Alan James, a volunteer with the Saunooke Fire Department in Haywood County.
Volunteers are the life-blood of rural and small-town fire departments. There’s an estimated 800,000 volunteer firefighters in America. But the number is going down. Over the past dozen years, volunteer fire rosters have shrunk by roughly 100,000, according to estimates by the National Volunteer Fire Council.
It’s increasingly difficult these days for volunteers to take time away from work and family to answer calls.
“When you are relying on volunteers, it’s a roll of the dice who’s going to show up,” said Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb. “People are a lot more busy now. It is a changing culture and changing society. It’s a nationwide problem. There just aren’t the volunteers anymore.”
Western North Carolina is luckier than most regions of the country. Here, community pride, cultural tradition and tight kinship bonds stir a sense of duty to take care of one’s own.
“When that pager goes off with an address, you know what house it is. Or when you walk up on a wreck, you know whose car that is,” said Stephen Arrington, a volunteer with the Saunooke Fire Department in Haywood County. “It is such an integral part of the community.”
Volunteer firefighters are already a thing of the past in urban cities, but not so in Appalachia, where loyalty is a way of life.
“I think that is a cultural difference in rural small-town America versus metro areas,” said Jeff Cash, the fire chief of Cherryville, N.C., and a leader with the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Nonetheless, volunteer fire departments across the mountains are struggling to keep their rosters up. Part of the problem is generational.
“In most areas, the Millennials and the Gen X’ers don’t put community volunteering high on their list. They don’t have that volunteer mindset,” Cash said.
The biggest enemy, however, is the changing labor landscape. It’s harder for volunteers to duck out of their jobs when a call comes in compared to days gone by.
“We don’t have the farmers and factory workers we used to have, who could quit and come fight a fire. People who work now can’t quit,” said Roland Hamrick, a firehouse consultant who conducted an outside assessment of Waynesville’s fire operations last year.
More people commute out of county for work, too, Webb said.
“They just aren’t here when calls go out during the day,” Webb said.
Volunteer firefighters agree the biggest challenge isn’t a desire to serve, but trying to balance their day job with their volunteer role.
“I have gone to a structure fire at 10 o’clock at night and fought the fire until 4 in the morning and come home and took a shower and gone to work,” said Blackburn, who works at Evergreen Packaging in Canton.
James, a volunteer with the Saunooke Fire Department, is one of lucky ones. He can walk off his job at Balsam Rental and Power Equipment anytime, no questions asked. His boss pays him anyway, even for the hours he’s not there.
In the rare instance James can’t go on a call, it’s sheer torture.
“I hate being gone on vacation when they have a call. We will be texting each other wanting to know how it is going. You can’t stand it. You will be worried and thinking about it until it is all over with,” James said. “If you put your heart into it, you will never turn that pager off.”
Stephen Arrington, also a volunteer with Saunooke Fire Department, has been known to show up for a fire call on his tractor. His family owns Barber’s Apple Orchard, making his job more flexible that most. But there’ve been times when he’s idled the packing house for a couple hours during peak picking season — despite 10 workers standing around on the clock until he gets back — to go answer a call.
“You look at every call and think this may be really serious,” Arrington said.
The notion of letting someone else respond is foreign to him.
“I am the someone else,” he said.
But often, it’s just not possible for bosses to let their employees off on the spur of the moment.
“Not every employer can,” Blackburn said. “Not everybody can be available 24 hours a day.”
Cashiers Fire Chief Randy Dillard said the work balance is particularly tough in his neck of the woods, where a seasonal population explosion creates the perfect storm every summer.
“July is wild to say the least in Cashiers,” Dillard said.
Calls naturally spike in summer when the tourists and second-homers are in town, but that’s also when people are the busiest at work.
“Our guys were leaving four and five times a day during the summer here,” Dillard said. “If you were running a business and only had two or three months to make your money for the year, could you afford to let an employee go a couple times during the day? You can let them off in the winter when it’s slow, but that’s not when all the calls are.”
Dillard gets it. He was once that guy himself, spending his summer months chained to the levers of an excavator in the fair-weather grading business.
“We’d go to a house fire, and go back to our jobs, and then at the end of the day come back to the station and clean equipment to get the trucks ready to go again,” said Dillard, who’s now paid as the full-time fire chief.
Call volume on the rise
The volunteer shortage isn’t always apparent on paper.
The Cullowhee Fire Department has just as many volunteers now as it did in the 1980s.
But back then, there were only 75 to 100 calls a year, said Tim Green, Cullowhee Fire Chief. Now there are 700.
The Cashiers department has more volunteers than ever. But it’s not been enough to keep pace with the increase in demand.
Not every call is a fire. Some are wrecks, some are simply false alarms, and some are serious medical calls where volunteer firefighters are called for back up, or because they are often closer and can get to someone first.
In Cashiers, where the closest emergency room can be an hour away over twisting mountain roads, medical helicopters are often called for quicker transport. Volunteer firemen also pitch in on medical air evacuations to ready a landing zone on the ground. The Cashiers department had 39 calls to set up helicopter landing zones last year.
From downed trees to gas leaks, the local fire house is the go-to source of help for all sorts of community problems. Sometimes, it’s simply changing smoke detector batteries for an elderly person or getting cats out of trees.
“We get calls like ‘Grandma fell out of bed and we can’t get her back in.’ We call those good intent calls,” Waynesville Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan said.
Volunteers also conduct a never-ending list of community outreach. Waynesville did more than 40 fire safety programs for local schools, churches and daycares last year, along with dozens more talks on sundry subjects — from water safety to car seat protocols — and, of course, the ubiquitous firehouse tours. The department also conducted 51 fire drills.
Another thing on the to-do list for volunteer firemen is testing every hydrant in their service area once a year — there are 140 of them in Cullowhee Fire Department.
“They have to gather in the evenings and on the weekends to test hydrants,” Green said.
The firefighters also double as their own fundraisers. In exchange for donations, they help people burn brush piles, fill up a swimming pool with water or change the batteries in smoke detectors that are too hard to reach.
“We have to get out here and beat the bushes for donations,” Green said.
As call volume has increased over the years, some sprawling rural fire districts with hard-to-reach hollers have made an effort to build substations to improve response time across their vast footprint.
But the state requires a minimum number of volunteers on the roster for each substation.
Cashiers has added five substations over the past 15 years to cover its 135-square-mile territory.
The biggest hurdle hasn’t been paying for the building or fire trucks, however. It’s the meeting manpower quota required by the state.
“Every time you add a station, that is eight more people you have to have. You can build a station and buy the trucks easier than you can find and outfit eight firemen,” Dillard said.
That’s one thing hampering the addition of a planned substation at Bear Lake in Jackson County, a major residential resort covered by the Cullowhee Fire Department.
To add a substation at Bear Lake, Green needs 46 volunteers on the roster. They only have 40 right now.
Bringing new firefighters online isn’t a cheap undertaking either.
Green thinks they can find the guys, but even then, the cost to train and outfit them is steep — about $10,000 in turn-out gear, training courses, injury insurance coverage and equipment, from an air pack to radio pagers.
“It is a costly operation,” Green said.
It wouldn’t be right to ask volunteers to pay the start-up costs out of their own pocket.
“We look at it as they are donating their time to help us, so the least we can do is come up with the money somehow or another,” he said.
Calling in reinforcements
Over the past decade, fire departments that were once all-volunteer have been adding a paid guy or two to lighten the load for volunteers — at least those that can afford it. Most are lucky to have a single paid position, however, usually the fire chief.
Rest assured, he’s not spending his days polishing the truck and doing chin-ups waiting for the bell to ring. His time is mostly filled with unglamorous paperwork, the never-ending pile of insurance reports, call logs, response reports, equipment inspections, hydrant certifications and bookkeeping.
In Cashiers, Dillard now has a core team of paid firefighters to knock out the routine fender benders and alarm checks without sapping the volunteer force.
“There were times you would get a call in the middle of the day and hope and pray someone was going to go,” Dillard said. “Now our volunteers are running more when we really need them. If you have a structure fire or a bad brush fire they are more apt to come if they haven’t already taken off four times that week to work wrecks.”
When a call is cleared, the work still isn’t over. The equipment must be cleaned, prepped and ready for the next call, from filling air packs to gassing up power saws.
And, of course, “The truck has to be washed,” Dillard said.
Technically, there’s no rule against it, so “can’t” may not be the right word. But there is an unspoken creed.
“You can’t put a truck up dirty,” Dillard said. “It is just not right. We love them. We like to have them beautiful.”
Now, those back-of-house duties are up to the paid guys with the department — two of them on shift at all times — saving the volunteer workforce for the calls that count.
Dillard still can’t do without his volunteers. It’s critical they don’t think they are being pushed out. And they can still show up on any call they want to.
“We told our guys you will always be welcome to come. You will never be turned away,” Dillard said.
Waynesville also has a core force of fulltime paid firefighters. But volunteers are still the backbone of the department. Waynesville has only two paid firefighters on shift at any given time — it takes a total of eight full-time firemen on the payroll to keep the firehouse staffed with two guys around the clock.
They handle routine calls and keep equipment in shape, but its Waynesville’s 30 volunteers who keep the department going.
Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb recently came across an old roster for the department from 1970. It showed eight paid, full-time fighters. Forty-five years later, despite an exponential increase in calls, Waynesville still has only eight paid, full-time firemen.
Out of necessity, Waynesville police are routinely pitching in on fire calls these days. Patrol officers who are on the roads anyway usually beat volunteer forces to a fire call.
While they can’t enter buildings, they rally to the occasion and start pulling hoses from trucks and hooking them up to hydrants until the volunteer back-up arrives.
Hamrick, the outside consultant who assessed Waynesville’s fire response last year, commended the police officers as auxiliary firemen.
“They were pretty much money on the spot. They jump in to fight fires until enough people get there,” Hamrick said.
But it’s not exactly a best practice.
Webb has asked the town to fund eight additional full-time firefighters in the coming year — enough to have four on shift at any given time instead of two.
Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan hopes to work it into the town’s budget.
“As our volunteers’ professional lives get busier and busier, it starts to interfere with their volunteer lives,” Morgan recognized. “Employers are not as likely to let volunteers off to go fight fires as they used to.”
Fire departments that can afford it have now also started paying their volunteers a nominal amount for each call.
Otherwise, volunteers end up spending their own money on gas to and from calls, on top of giving their time. Better-funded departments are now offering small stipends for each call they go on. Small is the operative word, however — Waynesville pays just $10.40 a call.
Cashiers started paying $12 a call last year, the max that’s allowed to still count as a volunteer.
“I actually had firemen who couldn’t afford the gas to come to a call because it was 20 miles in one direction,” Dillard said.
The wives of volunteer firemen make a huge sacrifice of their own, doing the heavy lifting on the home front when calls pull their husbands away.
Blackburn remembers leaving midway through his son’s 13th birthday party for a call. Once, James’ wife came out of Walmart only to find his truck wasn’t there anymore. He had driven away on a call, leaving her to find another ride home.
Arrington cleared his volunteer fire role with his future wife when they were still dating, explaining that it was part of the package if she stayed with him.
“It had been such a big part of my life,” said Arrington.
But it’s not just the calls that cut into family time. Going on fire calls is only a fraction of the time commitment.
Training and certifications are a non-stop undertaking. Gone are the days of farmers showing up to their neighbor’s barn with a bucket brigade.
Volunteers today have to meet an arduous training regimen mandated by the state. New volunteers face 300 hours of training to get started, and have to log 36 hours of training every year after that to keep their certification up. Trainings can range from evening sessions at the firehouse with guest instructors to all-day field exercises and practice burns.
For Blackburn, a volunteer with the North Canton department, answering calls is no longer taking him away from his family, but creating a new chance to bond with his 15-year-old son, who recently joined the “junior firefighter” program.
“It’s great for us to spend family time together, but it is also instilling a sense of helping others. You are a part of something larger than yourself,” Blackburn said.