By LINNEA OMMELSPANG
WVU Journalism Intern
The amount of people who want to participate in firefighting service has decreased tremendously since the 1970s.
One big difference is the time that people work during the day. Rob Woods, chief of the Stonewood Fire Department, said, “We used to have shift work in this country, and employers would let their volunteer firefighters off work to respond to a call. That doesn´t happen anymore.”
At the same time, interest in helping within the community has decreased rapidly. Woods blames that on the upbringing of younger children in this generation.
He said, “People today don´t want to help out and be part of the solution. They just want to be part of the problem.”
That has resulted in a decrease in both professional and volunteer firefighters since the 1980s, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
In the past 30 years, the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased from 808,200 in 1986 to 788,250 in 2016. This trend repeats itself for the professional firefighters, who have decreased from 346,150 in 1986 to 237,750 in 2016.
To become a volunteer firefighter, you have to sacrifice a lot of personal time. That starts with 120 hours of training, before you are permitted to even help out during an emergency.
Of these 120 hours, 80 hours are spent on firefighting, 34 are on hazardous material, and 6 hours are first aid and CPR training. If you want to be able to drive the fire truck, you must be at least 18 years old with a license and take 16 hours of practice driving.
If you have the time, you can move up to firefighting two, which is an additional 30 hours. To become a chief, you must complete another 140 hours of training, says state Fire Marshal Ken Tyree.
Not everyone has the time or willpower to put in this effort or dedicate this kind of time. Chief Woods says, “People have their own lives and their own agendas, and we’re not a part of it. There´s just not the mentality in this country anymore for volunteer service.”
Tyree says, “The problem is in the delivery of the training. The training might not always be convenient or accessible for anyone who wants to take it.”
Paul Bump, 911 director for Taylor and Harrison counties, said, “When I first started in 1979, you could get by with just around 30 to 40 hours of class time and be good to go, or just the training that you picked up at the station – not that the ways these people did things always were correct. Training time has increased,” he said, “as well as the risk of being sued for doing things the wrong way.”
There is a discussion in progress to change the training and make it easier and more accessible for anyone who feels like volunteering.
The training is not just time consuming, it is also quite expensive for the volunteer departments who usually pay for everything. Dylan Oliveto, fire chief in Shinnston, says, “It´s $35 for the classroom and $70 for the book fee per person, and we pay for the training as well as the equipment. These costs can quickly add up.”
There is also the cost of equipment for every new firefighter. One set of bunker gears is $2,800, and the helmet goes from $300 to $500 depending on what you buy. One air pack is $5,000. The uniform is only good for 10 years, according to the law, whether you use it or not. Then it must be repaired.
Where does all this money come from? One thing that most volunteer fire departments do is fundraising, but the participation in these types of events has also decreased with the shortage of members.
Woods added, “I can remember 10 or 15 years ago when I had three times the people I have now to help out at fundraisings.”
The other big economic income comes from the state, the county, and the city.
Oliveto’s department gets $40,000 from the state, $20,000 from the county and $60,000-$80,000 from the city’s fire fee. In the end, that money pretty much covers what the departments spend.
Not every department has this stability. Woods’ station gets $40,000 from the state and $20,000 from the county. Other than that, it has to survive on fundraising and donations.
Woods noted, “The money we get doesn´t even buy us the gear that the firefighters need and pay for our heating and fuel cost.”
With the manpower and economic problems that the volunteer fire departments face, the risk of a department closing is always on their minds.
In regards to closing, Woods says, “One would hope not. That would take the volunteer departments down to the minimal. I don´t say there´s not some stations that don´t have to close because at some point that could happen.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Linnea Ommelspang is a WVU student from Sweden, who is a sophomore at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. The article printed above was an assignment in her Journalism course. Bear in mind that for this student, English is a second language for her! The News & Journal was pleased to give her this experience.