Volunteer firefighter dilemma



You smell smoke or your home is engulfed in flames. A loved one is stricken with chest pains. An elderly person has fallen and can’t get up. There has been an automobile accident with injuries. What do you do? Who do you call? What if help isn’t available?

These scenarios are just a few of the calls firefighters across the country deal with on a daily basis.If you are fortunate enough to reside in a municipality where there are paid firefighters, help will arrive promptly.

But what if you live in a location that is serviced by volunteer firefighters? Can you be sure your call will be answered? The answer is no.While volunteer agencies try to answer every call and help other districts, the shortage of individuals to serve as volunteer firefighters continues to make it difficult. Even with an adequate number of volunteers, they are not always available to respond due to “life.” These individuals have jobs, families, and other responsibilities that keep them from responding to every call.

According to volunteerfirefighter.org, volunteer emergency responders provide 73 percent of emergency service throughout the U.S. In Blount County, there are 23 volunteer fire departments. The Blount County Fire and EMS Association is comprised of both career and volunteer fire departments, as well as Blount County Rescue Squad.

Volunteer fire departments are manned by trained individuals who selflessly give of their time to help those in need. Most receive no compensation.Whether paid or unpaid, conditions are not usually ideal. Calls may be in the middle of the night, as one is sitting down to eat, during a family celebration, in wet and icy conditions, or just as he/she is getting home after a long day at their full-time job.

Now firefighters face the additional risk of being infected with COVID-19. Holly Springs fire chief and president of the Blount County Fire and EMS Association Chris Hill recently said, “Right now, more than ever, you have to worry about what nasty stuff you bring back home to your family.” Yet despite these situations and risks, most who volunteer do not do it for recognition; they simple have a desire to help, even in less desirable situations.

When not responding to emergencies, the volunteers spend countless hours training, maintaining equipment, preparing reports, and so much more. It is time consuming, but those who volunteer believe it is worth every moment spent.

Over the past few years, several fire stations have seen a decrease in those who want to volunteer; yet the number of calls continues to increase. Hill noted in 2020 Holly Springs responded to 142 calls versus 129 calls in 2019. With that being said, the number of volunteers on the roster has remained about the same. Even though there were just 13 more calls than last year, it makes a big difference within a small department.

When Snead fire chief Lee Netherton tallied numbers, there were 242 more calls last year than in 2019. In 2020, they had 779 calls, while in 2019 Snead had 537. With an average of 15 volunteers on the roster, that increase in numbers has made it even more challenging for the department.

Due to a shortage of volunteers, local municipalities are looking for those who have the commitment and motivation to help make their community a better place. Although each department may have slightly different selection criteria, they are looking for individuals who are at least 18 years old, have a valid driver license, are healthy and in good physical condition, have completed the basic fire and EMS training, live in close proximity to the fire district, have a clean criminal record, meet ongoing training requirements, and respond to a certain percentage of calls.

In addition, volunteers need to have good communication skills as they interact with many people including fire and accident victims, police officers, other professionals, and government officials.

Firefighter skills range from core skills such as providing basic medical attention to fire and accident victims, rescuing people from dangerous situations, and driving emergency vehicles, to those volunteers who have advanced skills such as operating rescue boats and other watercraft, administering basic life support, or training new volunteers. Depending on the number of calls received, training requirements, and community activities the department is involved in, it will often determine the time commitment needed by the volunteer.

Over the next few weeks, The Blount Countian will be checking in with a few of the volunteer fire departments to see how things are going, gathering updated data, and trying to answer questions that many people have about becoming a volunteer to finding out when it is appropriate to call 911 and when it is not.

As you learn more about volunteer firefighters, consider contacting your local department to see how you can help. The road is not always easy, but the reward is great. Do you have what it takes?