By Tia Lynn Ivey
Fire Departments all across the nation largely depend on volunteers to comprise the vast majority of firefighters. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 65 percent of the nation’s firefighters are volunteers. However, in the last few decades, the number of volunteer firefighters have been dwindling, and Morgan County is no exception.
According to Fire Chief Jeff Stone, Morgan County is currently looking for ways to incentivize people to become volunteer firefighters.
“We are the cusp of having to take action,” said Stone. “Eventually, we will need to get more volunteers, or have our volunteers be more available, or the fire department, the county commissioners and the citizens will have to start looking into hiring more professional full-time firefighters and how to pay for that.”
According to Stone, in 2007, the Morgan County Fire and Rescue (MCFR) department had 125 firefighters, only a handful of which were paid, professional firefighters. Today, the MCFR has a total of 99 firefighters, eight of which are full-time firefighters, one is Chief Stone, and the rest are volunteers.
“Our number of volunteers has been going down a bit over the years,” said Stone.
According to Stone, not only are the number of volunteers going down, but the time frame of availability among remaining volunteers is more limited than in years past due to current economic pressures.
“It’s not just about how many volunteers we have, it’s about when our volunteers are available,” said Stone. “During the day, especially during the weekdays, we are finding ourselves short on volunteers to respond to calls.”
According to Stone, most volunteers are working regular jobs Monday through Friday, and are typically unavailable during the work day.
“We are seeing a gap between 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week, especially if we happen to get multiple calls at the same time,” said Stone. “If we have multiple calls come in during the middle of the day, we are seeing more a gap in how many of our volunteers can respond. Our full-time guys split up and we cover the calls, but lately we have had more calls during the day when most our volunteers just cannot respond.”
Stone believes the reasons behind the declining volunteer rates are multifaceted.
“There are a lot of factors as to why people don’t volunteer or can’t always responds when they do volunteer,” said Stone.
Stone said that Morgan County’s pool of volunteer firefights decreased when older volunteers retired and weren’t replaced at the same rate by younger volunteers.
“People like to blame millenials for everything, but it’s not that they lack the dedication or interest, it’s that they don’t have the time to be dedicated because of how people work today. Most households need two incomes, with a lot of people needing to have two or three jobs. Others are starting families with young kids and the requirements today to become a volunteer firefighter are far more time-consuming today than they were in past. Some of these younger people just don’t have the time with working as many hours as they do or the time they need for their families.”
According to Stone, required standards to become a volunteer firefighter have become far more stringent than they were a couple decades ago.
“Back in the day, you could just come in the office, we’d give you a t-shirt and after 30-40 hours of training, you could become a volunteer firefighter,” explained Stone. “As things have progressed and the standards and level of training has increased. Today, a volunteer firefighter needing to complete 300-plus hours of training.”
Stone also noted that today’s volunteer firefighters need to have a high school diploma or G.E.D. and must pass a criminal background check, and pass a skills test and written knowledge test.
“Those are good things, but you’d be surprised how many people that knocks out of becoming a volunteer,” said Stone.
The MCFR is planning to change the compensation formula for volunteer firefighters, hoping the small stipend for volunteers will be more equitable and either enable more people to volunteer or have current volunteers respond to more calls.
“Right now, our volunteers can receive up to $140 per quarter, $70 if volunteers meet a certain number of training hours and another $70 if volunteers respond to a certain percentage of calls,” explained Stone. “In the upcoming Fiscal Year 2020 Budget, we are looking to change that to make things more equitable.”
The MCFR is proposing a “per call” system of compensation that would pay responding volunteer firefighters $10 per fire-related call and between $2-$6 for responding to medical calls, depending on their level of training.
“We are hoping that this kind of stipend will encourage our volunteers to respond to more calls since there will be a small stipend for them with each and every call they respond to,” said Stone. “The people running the calls will get more money based on how many calls they respond to.”
“This will be in our budget proposal, but we won’t know if it will be approved until the County Commissioners review it and approve it,” said Stone.
To find out more information on becoming a volunteer firefighter, call the MCFR at (706) 343-6503.