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Help wanted
Effort aims to increase fire volunteers

Friday, June 21, 2013

From Bulletin staff reports

Martinsville and Henry County fire deparments are hoping a federally funded program will help them recruit and keep more state-certified volunteer firefighters.

The Henry County Public Safety Department and Martinsville Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department have been chosen to take part in the Volunteer Workforce Solutions program, which aims to find creative ways to recruit and keep volunteers.

They are among 14 emergency services providers statewide who will take part in the program, a partnership of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, George Mason University, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), which makes geographical information systems (GIS) software.

The idea, according to officials, is that because communities are unique, the county and city might be able to find unique ways to recruit firefighters based on their individual circumstances.

The process is called “tapestry segmentation.” Over the years, it has been used by organizations and businesses, as well as the government, to better understand characteristics of people they are trying to reach, said Jennifer Schottke, Esri’s senior manager of fire/EMS and public safety policy.

Part of the process will involve “anything we can do to talk to people” and encourage them to become volunteers, said Henry County Assistant Fire Marshal Kiah Cooper, such as having open houses at fire stations and information booths at community events.

The program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will begin July 1 and continue for about a year, he said. Then it will be evaluated for its effectiveness, officials said.

Research by the fire chiefs association shows that a lack of staffing is the main problem faced by volunteer fire departments across the state.

“Most volunteer fire departments are struggling to bolster their volunteer workforce in order to provide the optimum level of (fire) protection,” said Jimmy Carter, executive director of the association.

Local fire officials said changing workplace attitudes and economic conditions contribute to the volunteer firefighter shortage.

Fewer businesses now let employees who are volunteer firefighters suddenly take time off from work with pay to go out and battle blazes, said Cooper.

“It’s become hard for people to justify” taking time off from work because they fear losing their jobs, said Martinsville Deputy Fire Chief Kris Shrader.

“The middle of the day is the toughest time to get volunteers” to respond to fires, Cooper mentioned, especially with more and more people having to go out of town to find work.

Furthermore, the amount of training required for volunteer firefighters has increased over the years and, largely due to the amount of time they must devote to paid jobs, “folks just don’t have time for it,” Shrader said.

Fire personnel — including volunteers — now must undergo 120 hours of classwork and 40 hours of hands-on training to be certified by the Virginia Department of Fire Programs as a Firefighter I, he said.

Martinsville’s fire department has 24 paid full-time firefighters who work in shifts around the clock and 15 part-time firefighters who are called in when, for example, a full-time firefighter is out sick or on vacation.

The department has 23 volunteers, but only about a dozen are certified by the state as firefighters, Shrader said. It would like to recruit and be able to train at least 15 more volunteers, he said.

Altogether, the county’s public safety department and eight volunteer fire departments have about 300 volunteers. They hope to recruit at least 100 more, Cooper said.

The city does not let volunteers who are not certified as firefighters battle blazes. In the county, uncertified volunteers cannot enter burning buildings but can help fight fires from the outside, officials said.

Uncertified volunteers generally do fire scene tasks such as getting equipment for firefighters and setting up water supplies.

No state law specifies that volunteer firefighters must undergo training. But if an untrained firefighter gets hurt on the job, the fire department could be held liable in a lawsuit or be fined by the federal government, Shrader said. That is why Martinsville does not let uncertified volunteers fight fires.

Despite its paid force, the city still needs volunteers because only seven or eight firefighters — including on average one volunteer — generally are able to respond to fire calls, Shrader said. Eight paid personnel are on a shift.

In the county, Cooper said, usually five or six people from a fire department will respond to a structure fire in its district. But the actual number of people responding generally is about 15, he said, because of mutual aid agreements.

Locally, it is standard protocol for two fire departments to automatically be dispatched to structure fires, he added.

The National Fire Protection Association has determined that at a typical brick, ranch-style home, for instance, at least 15 firefighters are needed to adequately and safely extinguish a fire, Shrader noted.

Shrader said there have been times when Martinsville firefighters were at a major fire in one part of the city when another fire occurred in another part. However, due to mutual aid agreements, neither he nor Cooper fear a fire call in either the city or county would go unanswered.

Martinsville’s fire department responds to about 3,100 calls a year. Henry County’s eight volunteer fire departments answer a total of roughly 7,900 calls each year, statistics show.


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