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Desperate for recruits, volunteer firefighters hope to change the perception that their brotherhood is a boys’ club

fr fire2Despite the stereotype of volunteer firefighters as Type A alpha males, knowing your Nascar drivers and driving a pick-up truck isn’t a prerequisite for being a volunteer firefighter.

“We will take them even if they drive a Prius,” said Joseph Massie, a volunteer with Saunooke Fire Department in Haywood County. “We want to encourage people from all walks of life.”

Massie knows, because he’s been there. When Massie was 30, he was a regular in the Waynesville pub scene and spent his free time playing music with his band. 

“I was the hippy of the group really,” Massie said. “It wasn’t necessarily in my blood. But at 30, I hit that stage where I thought, I got to do something different. It totally changes the way you think about everything.”

Massie was readily accepted into the club of volunteer firefighters from the first moment he set foot in the firehouse. 

fr fire2 massie“It’s a brotherhood,” said Ben Caldwell with the Clyde Fire Department.

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If Caldwell’s truck breaks down in the middle of the night, there’s a couple hundred guys he could call for help — not just on his own crew, but from any of the 14 volunteer fire departments in the county.

“People who risk their lives together have a tendency to get really close,” added David Blackburn, one of 45 volunteers with the North Canton Department. 

But it’s not a one-size-fits-all club.

“We have everyone from farmers to nurses, to maintenance engineers, grocery store clerks — you don’t have to be a certain type of person to volunteer,” Blackburn said.

The stereotype of a boys’ club can nonetheless be a real hurdle for some departments to break away from, said Jeff Cash, the fire chief in Cherryville, N.C., who’s on the executive council of the National Volunteer Fire Council.

“Cliques form and it is hard sometimes for an outsider to break into those cliques,” Cash said.

Cash spends a lot of time these days preaching to fire departments around the country on how to grow their volunteer roster. Rural volunteer fire departments have historically been all white, and all male. They need to reach out to women, Latinos, and all walks in a community and make a place for them, Cash said.

“The writing is on the wall,” Cash said. “The success of your recruiting is a numbers game. And the number of white men available to volunteer is lower than in previous years.”

fr fire2 jamesCash routinely travels the country doing talks on how to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters for the National Volunteer Fire Council. Gobs of research has been conducted in hopes of solving the national shortage of volunteer firefighters. 

Based on the studies, the number one reason new volunteers don’t join is because they aren’t asked, Cash said. Surveys have shown 44 percent of Millennials are open to the idea of joining a volunteer fire department. Often, all they need is an invitation.

But the way to reach Millennials — on Facebook or in line at Starbucks — isn’t intuitive to the older generation of firefighters.

Until recently, recruiting and keeping volunteers were seen as one in the same.

“Now we have separated those into two unique categories,” Cash said.

While free time, work and family are very real constraints, a less tangible factor often comes into play.

“If a volunteer doesn’t get their way or disagrees or there are personality clashes, they usually walk,” Cash said. 

It’s up to the chief to make them feel valued, but still avoid the pitfalls of too many cooks in the kitchen.

“It is a very fine line they have to balance,” Cash said.

The National Volunteer Fire Council has focused on leadership training for fire chiefs to help them handle firehouse politics and keep their volunteer base from splintering.

Greg Shuping, the Emergency Services Director for Haywood County, agreed keeping up morale is a critical role for department leadership. Even small gestures, like buying pizza on training nights, can go a long way, Shuping said.

But ironically, it’s not the perks like free gym memberships or Sunday cookouts that fuel the fire in the belly for volunteers. Shuping believes quality-training exercises that bring departments together outside of the routine calls are the best way to keep volunteers motivated.

Shuping believes a new $4.1 million fire, rescue and law enforcement training center being built at Haywood Community College could inspire a new wave of volunteer firefighters. The crowned jewel of the training center is a multi-story burn tower where firefighters can train on live fire simulations.

“These guys want to get outside and get dirty,” Shuping said. “They want to feel like they are actually doing something. They respond to a sense of civic duty and being able to do a job that no one else can do.”

There is a pay-off down the road for those who put in the years. Volunteers with 20 years of active service can draw $170 a month for life once they hit age 55. 

It’s an incentive to be sure, but ultimately, not the reason volunteers do it, Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb said.

“It is in their blood to help their neighbors. They don’t look to a check. They look to be able to help their community,” Webb said.

The real pay-off, however, is intangible but priceless.

fr fire2 landtBeing a volunteer firefighter unlocks the door to self-actualization, the top rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Cash said.

“To know you are contributing to something bigger than yourself, that’s what we can provide,” Cash said.

Jeremy Landt, a volunteer with the Clyde Department, admits the first step might not be easy.

“It is always intimidating to walk into a building where you don’t know anybody,” Landt said.

But Massie said volunteer fire departments today would welcome anyone with open arms.

“Anyone who has this inkling,” Massie said. “No one knows what potential they have until they come and see what tools and training we can offer them.”

Even if it’s not in your nature to charge into burning buildings, there are plenty of support roles that are equally critical, whether it’s helping with technology, clerical work or directing traffic at a scene.

“Just because you can’t go into a house, I will find you something you can do. If you are willing to do it, I will teach you,” said Joe Alan James, a volunteer with Saunooke Fire Department.

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