As volunteer fire cavalry wanes, quick response hinges on a core of paid staff
Waynesville town leaders heard something they didn’t necessarily want to hear last week.
The town’s interim manager told them they don’t have enough paid firefighters and need to double the number from eight to 16.
The Waynesville Fire Department has historically relied on a loyal stable of volunteer firefighters. The fire department has a skeleton crew of paid firefighters, but counts on volunteers to serve as the backbone.
A decline in volunteer firefighters over the past decade — a trend playing out nationwide — has made it increasingly difficult to respond quickly with the necessary men to tackle a fire.
On paper, the town has eight paid firefighters, which sounds like a lot. But it’s the bare minimum to keep two fire stations staffed with a single man 24-7.
“You only have one firefighter on duty per station, per shift. That’s it,” Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan told the town board at a budget workshop last week.
When a call comes in, the firefighter on shift at each station jumps in the truck and screams to the scene. But there’s not much they can do until the cavalry arrives. Without the volunteer force to back them up, the two paid firefighters on duty at any given time aren’t enough to fight a fire.
“Before a person can go into a house fire you have to have two in, two out,” Morgan said.
No matter how much they want to charge into a burning building, they can’t unless they have four firefighters on the scene. You need two to enter the burning building — ensuring no one goes in alone — and two to stay outside for support in case the guys inside go down.
Thus the “two in, two out” mantra. The only exception is when human life is at risk.
“If you think you have trapped individuals you can go in,” Morgan said.
In today’s world, it’s increasingly risky to rely on volunteer manpower for fighting fires. You simply can’t be sure who will show up, or how long it will take them to get there.
Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb said the shortage of volunteer firefighters isn’t just a local one.
“It’s a nationwide problem. There just aren’t the volunteers anymore,” Webb said.
Work is the biggest hurdle for volunteers. Local farmers and factory workers no longer dominate the work force. More people commute, or work in jobs where they can’t walk out when a call comes in.
“Employers don’t allow them to take time away from work to be able to do that,” Webb said.
Nationally, volunteer fire rosters have shrunk by roughly 100,000 over the past dozen years, according to estimates by the National Volunteer Fire Council.
It’s getting more difficult to recruit volunteers, and for those who are on the roster, it’s harder to get away from their day jobs or family duty to respond to calls.
Meanwhile, the population and fire calls have increased over the past two decades. The Waynesville Fire Department responded to 63 fires last year. But that’s only part of the picture. Volunteers were mobilized dozens of times to respond to downed trees, severe weather conditions, wrecks, hazards like gas leaks and calls for humanitarian assistance.
“It is very difficult for our volunteers to keep that pace up. They do a superb job, but it’s when they can,” Morgan said.
By no means could the department do without the volunteer force, however. The town has only about 30 volunteers right now.
The volunteer firefighters will still be critical to the department, and Morgan hopes there’s not a perception that the Waynesville Fire Department doesn’t need volunteers to step up anymore.
“My concern is the community will think now we are safe. Well, no,” Morgan said. “We are still falling short, but it is getting us a little further along in the ballgame.”
Smoke and mirrors
The dire consequences of stretched staffing at the Waynesville Fire Department hit home last summer.
A massive training drill simulated a fire sweeping through downtown Waynesville. Firefighters raced the clock to stop the fire from jumping from building to building.
If firefighting were an Olympic sport, the crews who battled the mock fire in downtown Waynesville would have come close to a perfect 10.
“Your group for the lack of a better term busted their butt. They worked themselves into the ground without stopping. They fought tooth and nail to do what we set out to do,” said Roland Hamrick, an outside consultant brought in to assess strengths and weaknesses during the exercise.
Unfortunately, the night wasn’t without blemishes.
“The only problem is you don’t have enough people,” Roland told the town board during his report on the drill last fall. “Firefighting is a down-and-dirty, labor-intensive job. If we can’t put it out in the first 10 minutes, chances are we aren’t going to put it out.”
In the downtown drill, 20 minutes ticked by before the manpower was on the scene to go in the building and make an interior attack.
It’s common to invite outside evaluators in for mock drills.
“We wanted someone who was impartial and could look at this objectively and give us a report back on the status of our service,” said Greg Shuping, Haywood County Emergency Services director.
The drill tested everything from EMS response to central command coordination. The scenario even measured how well Haywood Regional Medical Center could handle a mass influx of trauma patients.
Roland said the whole gamut performed exceptionally.
Roland said he expected nothing less based on the classy, landmark new fire station and state-of-the-art trucks and equipment.
“My thought was this must be a jam up organization,” Roland said.
Roland’s biggest and only criticism was what he called the “minimum, minimum, minimum staffing” of the fire department.
When a call comes in, volunteers are at work, asleep, mowing their lawn, at the grocery store, or what have you. They have to quit what they’re doing, suit up and get to the fire in their personal vehicle — which can take 10 minutes at best, and more often 20 depending on where they are in relation to the fire.
And that’s if they can get there at all.
Meanwhile, the paid firefighters at the town’s two fire stations were able to jump in the engines and race to the scene. They got there in just three minutes.
But there was only so much they could do until the volunteer force arrived.
The two paid firemen on shift who got there first have a dozen balls in the air until the volunteer support arrives. They are fielding radio traffic, getting hoses pulled off the truck, dressing the hydrants, reviewing building footprint plans, and so on.
Roland said he was both surprised and impressed with the stellar performance of Waynesville police officers during these critical first few minutes.
Whenever a fire call comes in, police officers pinch-hit until the volunteers show up by helping pull hoses and hook up hydrants.
“The police department did an excellent job. They were pretty much money on the spot. They pretty much are of the understanding they have to fight fires until enough people get there,” Roland said.
But at the end of the day, they couldn’t do what they needed to do most — namely get inside the burning building — until they had four men on the scene.
Firefighters knew the drill was coming, of course. In fact, they were all gathered at the fire station in Hazelwood, waiting for the pretend 911 call that would set the drill in motion.
But the drill had to mimic the real response time of a real fire. It would be unrealistic to have four dozen firefighters waiting in the wings to pounce at the first sign of smoke.
Instead, they were sent to the scene in waves, mirroring real-world response times for the department’s volunteer force.
Drill coordinators had analyzed the average response times of firefighters ahead of time. That baseline determined the flow of volunteers onto the scene the night of the drill.
“They were held and then released to go to their positions to make the timeline as realistic as possible,” Webb said.
The drill even had simulated smoke to make the fire real. Massie Furniture, an anchor business on Main Street, allowed their building to serve as the training ground and origin of the pretend fire. Typically, a vacant building is used for drills, but a testament to Main Street’s healthy economy, there wasn’t a single empty building last summer.
And that’s exactly why a downtown fire can be so devastating.
“It can close your town down for days, and it is an economic impact for moths. It is a big thing when something happens,” Roland said.
Neighboring Sylva witnessed that first-hand last year, after a fire hit its downtown. It was after that fire, in fact, that Waynesville pulled together its downtown training exercise.
Ironically, Sylva had conducted a downtown fire scenario of its own not long before the real fire hit.
“Sylva was able to save a lot of property because they had a good plan, and that’s what we’re going to do here,” Shuping said.