Firefighters face funding, aging challenges

By Joy Frank-Collins

Special to the Times

Tucker Hampton, 18, is thinking about getting into the medical field. He’s currently enrolled in an EMT training course at Marietta High School, hoping it will help him determine if it’s a career he wants to pursue. The course also helps pave a path for community service as a member of a local volunteer fire department.

Like much of Appalachia, area emergency services in the case of a fire or car accident often are provided not by a municipality, but by volunteers.

Washington County is served by a network of 17 volunteer fire departments that provide the bulk of the fire protection, accident response and emergency medical services to its approximately 61,000 residents. And right now, they are in need of new recruits.

“They’re having some difficulty getting new members,” said Rich Hays, director of the Washington County Emergency Management Agency.

One reason is the fast-paced lives people lead now compared to the past, offered Mark Wile, president of the Washington County Fire Chief’s Association and chief of the Warren Volunteer Fire Department.

“Twenty years ago, they didn’t have soccer all year, and basketball all year and baseball three seasons,” he said. “People get busy with their kids and their lives and they just don’t seem to have the time to dedicate to volunteering like they did.”

Recruitment became such an issue for the Reno Volunteer Fire Department, one of the busiest in the county, that in 1995, they passed a tax levy to employ two full-time firefighter/EMTs.

“Recruitment got to the point that we had to do the levy or get out of the business,” said Chief Dan Ritchey.

They currently have about 20 active members and work to add to their numbers via newspaper ads, yard signs and even door-to-door canvassing, he said.

Deep community roots help with staffing too, added Assistant Chief Jon Bradford.

“We have a lot of sons and stepsons and daughters and stepdaughters who have come aboard and followed in their parents’ footsteps,” he said.

Not only are people busier, there are also a few perception issues related to volunteering, Wile added.

“People think they have to respond every time the tones go off, but that’s not the case. We’re volunteers. We go when we can,” he said. “I have people who make 70 percent of the runs and people who make 10 percent of the runs, both are equally valuable.”

Also worth noting, while fighting fires and saving lives is an important role at a local volunteer fire department, it’s not the only one.

“Not everyone has to run into a burning building,” Wile said. “There are a lot of roles that can be played within the EMS and fire department that are not on a patient or in a fire,” he added.

Some include performing maintenance on the firehouses, equipment or vehicles or doing clerical work.

Whether it’s saving structures from fire or administering aid to an injured person, serving as a volunteer firefighter is a rewarding activity.

“It really is pretty satisfying in that you can do something to help someone in their time of need,” Wile said. “Especially because you never know when your time may come.”

That’s another reason Hampton, who hasn’t yet decided if he’ll serve as a volunteer while in college, is taking the EMT course.

“I thought it would be great to learn how to save a life,” he said.

Challenges for firefighters in Appalachia

¯ Availability of

volunteers.

¯ Size of coverage areas.

¯ Lack of funds.

¯ Difficulty in

recruiting.

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