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Duty drives volunteers

February 9, 2008
By Patrick Cooley,
Ken Hunt became a Little Hocking volunteer firefighter because he wanted to give something back to the community.

“That and I like the flashing red lights,” he said.

Hunt said he goes on a squad run an average of two to three times a month, depending on the time of year.

“Being a volunteer isn’t just about showing up and putting the fire out,” he said. “If there is a fire, you have to show up and put the fire out, then overhaul the house and do a lot of little things. It can be very time-consuming.”

Across the nation, 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, In Ohio, that figure rises to 80 percent.

Of the 20 fire departments in Washington County, only Marietta’s is a paid full-time department, although several departments have some full-time employees.

“I’ve never had a fire, but I’ve been out and I’ve seen their work,” said Belpre resident Charles McDonald, 82, about the Belpre Volunteer Fire Department. “I’ve seen their arrival time, and they are to be congratulated.”

Departments face a variety of challenges, from raising money to keep equipment updated to complying with expanded training requirements. Another challenge facing many departments is membership.

Some volunteers are retired, like Don Forshey, 58, a member of the Watertown Volunteer Fire Department for more than 20 years.

“We go through training all the time, pump training, live fire training, water movement,” he said. “If they set a house on fire, you’ve got to go in and put it out; you have to be ready.”

Many departments have longtime members like Forshey, and their rosters’ average age is increasing.

“We have some of the same members we’ve had for years,” said Eric Pritchett, captain of the Newport Volunteer Fire Department. “There’s a generational change. The older generation had the attitude, ‘What can I do for you?’ but some of the people from the younger generations — not all, but some — have the attitude, ‘What can you do for me?’”

He said some volunteer fire departments have been trying to regroup with newer members by talking about offering benefits.

“The Vienna (W.Va.) Fire Department, they’ve started to put some money into retirement benefits for their members,” Pritchett said.

The age range of volunteer firefighters is fairly broad. Howard Varner, a volunteer with the Wesley Fire Department, is 66. Stefan Hanes, who was a volunteer emergency medical technician before becoming a full-time EMT with the Devola Volunteer Fire Company, is 23.

“I would guess that our average age is in the mid-20s,” said Jimmy King, chief of the Wesley Volunteer Fire Department, “although we have several that are 40 or older.”

Some departments report their numbers have been dwindling.

“We’ve seen a decrease over the last few years,” said Seth Deem, a captain with Devola. “We’ve lost 10 people off our roster. Had some retire and we’ve had a couple of guys start working for FEMA (the Federal Emergency management Agency) since Hurricane Katrina.”

According to Jeff Lauer, director of the Washington County Emergency Management Agency and chief of the Fearing Volunteer Fire Department, there are several departments in the county that could use more members.

“Some departments are fairly thin, especially during the daytime,” he said. “People are working and making a living. From my position, we definitely have an issue in the county, maybe not as bad as the rest of the state, but it is still something we have to address.”

Many departments are taking measures to recruit new members. Some, such as the Reno Volunteer Fire Department, go door to door asking for volunteers and distributing information about the department. Others post flyers at different community activities.

“We try to talk to everyone and be up front,” King said. “We post the different things we do and the different activities we put on around town, and sometimes they spread by word of mouth. We let everyone know there are always things we can use help with.”

Article Photos

MITCH CASEY The Marietta Times
Jason Maxon, a firefighter with the Reno Volunteer Fire Department, tends to chores Thursday at the station's Cornerville Road location.



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