Area firefighters say training, jobs and other priorities reason for volunteer shortage
Johnathan Earnhardt frequently walks off the job at Carolina Stalite.
But that’s OK with his employer.
The 25-year-old welder is also a volunteer firefighter with Gold Hill Volunteer Fire Department a few miles down the road. Sometimes when there’s a fire or emergency call, Earnhardt responds, as do a handful of other volunteer fire and rescue personnel who also work at Stalite.
Earnhardt, who has been working at the Gold Hill company since he was 18, is permitted to leave his job and go to his other “job” as a firefighter.
“If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be able to go. That’s a real big help,” Earnhardt said.
He is among few Rowan County volunteer firefighters who can leave work to take on a risky second job.
“Here’s the thing that’s changed in the last 50 to 60 years: Most were farmers in the late ’50s, mid-’60s, and if you think about the job market, we had textile mills, a lot of the these were the volunteers,” said Bostian Heights Fire Chief Mike Zimmerman.
In addition, most people 60 years ago worked within a 20-mile range of where they lived.
“Today, a lot of our volunteers work out of county, or they work in this county and can’t leave work,” Zimmerman said.
“It’s almost unheard of to work in a job that allows its employees to leave,” said Frank Thomason, director of Emergency Management Services.
Thomason and other local fire officials say there is a shortage of volunteer firefighters and being unable to leave work for fire calls is one of the reasons why.
Earnhardt is unique because he is a volunteer firefighter whose employer allows him to leave and do what he’s been doing since he was 16 years old.
The Gold Hill department is made up of all volunteers who respond to 200 fire and emergency calls a year. Many of those calls, Earnhardt said, occur during a 12-hour period — 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
There are three firefighters who leave Stalite and return to their job after battling a fire or rescuing someone from a wreck. Earnhardt is one.
Some of his co-workers aren’t as understanding as the company.
“They don’t think it’s fair, but they don’t know what goes on with firefighting,” Earnhardt said.
If he leaves, the work still goes on. However, it’s not so easy for some.
“There are two firefighters who can’t leave,” he said.
Earnhardt’s father, Randy Earnhardt, recently retired as chief of Gold Hill and has worked at Stalite for 26 years. Randy Earnhardt is also one of those firefighters who walks out of the gates to respond to an emergency.
“We have always tried to be good neighbors,” said Earnest Jackson, with Stalite human resources.
Jackson said Stalite and the fire department have always worked well together. In fact, the company has used the fire department for training. Three Gold Hill firefighters are a part of the Stalite Safety Team and three of the department’s first responders are certified EMT personnel. “If there’s a call, the guys leave, and then they come back. They stay on our payroll ’til then. It’s the way it’s always been,” Jackson said.
Throughout the years, Jackson said, a number of volunteer firefighters have worked at the company. Currently a firefighter with Liberty Fire Department in Salisbury works there. The company also employs a Pooletown firefighter.
“We employ a lot of the residents in Gold Hill,” Jackson said.
Earnhardt grew up watching his father run out the door to head to fire calls. His brother, Chad, is now the East Gold Hill fire chief.
“I just grew up with it. I came down here with my dad (as a child) just to see the fire trucks,” Earnhardt said.
Becoming a firefighter is not a matter of simply volunteering.
Throughout the years Earnhardt has taken various training and certification classes that cover hundreds of hours. It took him two years to complete all the required classes.
“You’ve got to go through so many classes. You train non-stop,” he said.
A firefighter is never done with training, Earnhardt said.
Every few years, the state announces another requirement or offers continuing education programs. Earnhardt says all those education and training requirements keep volunteers from joining the area fire departments.
“People don’t have time to go to classes. They don’t have time to do it,” he said.
Many firefighters complete the required training while they are young, some while in high school like Casey Stiller, 17, and Daniel Shue, 18. Both Stiller and Shue are interns at Locke Fire Department.
Stiller interns through West Rowan High, and Shue leaves Carson High during the afternoon to work at the Mooresville Road fire station. Both teens are also with the station as junior firefighters.
“I definitely would like to go career,” Stiller said.
He first visited the station “just to see what it was all about” and liked what he saw. Stiller has received some certifications through the fire department, but his age prevents him from entering a burning structure.
Shue recently turned 18, and because he’s received the required firefighting certifications, can go inside a structure during a fire. Shue also plans to become a career firefighter.
Firefighters must obtain the basics in order to step foot inside a burning building. The National Fire Protection Agency mandates all North Carolina firefighters obtain a certification that incorporates more than a dozen classes. The classes all firefighters must take include hose training, rescue and fire prevention.
Stiller and Shue spend several days a week checking the fire trucks to make sure the equipment is in proper working order and perform other housekeeping tasks like cleaning the trucks. The teens can also glean knowledge from veteran firefighters.
Shue has relatives who are career firefighters, while Stiller is the first in his family to pursue firefighting.
“They are proud that ... I’ve found what I want to do for the rest of my life so young,” Stiller said.
From rookie to firefighter
No one in Brittany Alexander’s immediate family has been involved with firefighting, but one could say it’s always been in her blood. As a child, the 21-year-old Rowan native — like many other girls at a young age — played with dolls. Alexander, however, put her doll on a fire truck.
When she reached middle school, her love of firefighting never subsided, her mother recalled.
“At first I was like, ‘It will pass,’ ” Dawn Alexander said.
She soon realized the phase was there to stay.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Somebody has to do it,’ ” Dawn said.
In 2005, a then 14-year-old Alexander began as a junior firefighter with Millers Ferry Fire Department. She is now the department’s only part-time female firefighter. Early on, Alexander felt she had something to prove in the male-dominated profession.
I said, ‘I have to show them,’ ” she recalled.
She began as a junior firefighter working alongside fellow junior Justin Monroe, who died in a 2008 mill fire. His death made her strive harder as a firefighter.
“I didn’t want to let him down,” she said. “I wanted to make him proud.”
The self-assured young woman with a Southern drawl doesn’t shy away from going inside a burning structure or risking her life to save someone else.
“You want to go inside to feel the heat,” she said.
When she’s in full turnout gear at a fire, no one knows she’s a female, except when she takes her helmet off and reveals a ponytail and a pink hood that protects her head and neck.
“I always loved firefighting, the trucks and ambulances,” Alexander said.
“I’m a female and I’m proving I can do it,” she said.
Right now, she’s balancing being a part time firefighter and continuing her education.
School comes first with Alexander, who attends class two days a week at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. She enrolled in the Fire Academy, known to many as “rookie school” where she began pursuing emergency medical technician certification and an associate’s degree in fire protection technology. She’s obtained the medical certification and will graduate in May. Alexander is thinking about pursuing a paramedic certification.
Her fellow firefighters at Millers Ferry are like fathers, she said. They look out for her.
Working 9 to 5
Brooke Rainey has been a firefighter since 1994 when she joined Ellis Cross Country and later joined Millers Ferry when she moved. She’s been with Millers Ferry for five years now. Rainey is also a full-time pharmacy technician at MedExpress Pharmacy on West Innes Street in Salisbury.
Since she works during the day, Rainey isn’t able to respond to fire and emergency calls.
“I catch the calls that I can when I’m home,” she said.
She does still receive a text and page on all emergency calls, as do all volunteer, part-time and full-time firefighters.
“The bigger calls, I wish I could go on,” she said while sitting at her desk at work.
“I’ve always loved it. It doesn’t scare me to go into a burning building. I want to be there to help,” she said.
When she first joined, requirements for firefighters weren’t as extensive. The training a firefighter received early in her career was at the fire station several times a month. Two years into firefighting, requirements changed, but she had already begun pursuing essential training. It took Rainey a couple of years to complete all the required classes, she said.
MedExpress co-owner Jon Post said the company loves that Rainey is an EMT/firefighter.
“She’s pulled her medical bag out a couple of times. She is the first person to help and has done a great job with it. We’re glad she’s here for that reason, among others,” Post said.
Post said he’s had conversations with Rainey about her work with the fire department, and if she ever said to him she absolutely had to go to a fire, it would not be a problem.
“I would want her to do that. Nothing she is doing is of a critical nature that she can’t go,” Post said.
Rainey handles prescription questions and calls customers about their medications. Post said it is reassuring to have Rainey on staff because she can assist customers who may experience a medical emergency while inside the pharmacy, which has happened.
Rainey has also been on a fire call in the early mornings and her employer encouraged her to take her time and show up to work when her emergency response was complete.
Rainey said the future of firefighting rests upon the younger recruits who have more time to devote to training and regular response.
“The juniors are an extremely high asset to all volunteer fire departments. We help open their eyes to all training instances they will require when they eventually join the department when turning of age. Bringing these kids in is the way to go,” she said.