Area fire departments challenged to recruit and retain personnel

Published 12:10 am Sunday, September 2, 2018

By Shavonne Walker

When an emergency strikes — be it a heart attack, traffic accident or house fire, everyone expects to hear sirens and see firetrucks rush to the scene. Over the last several decades, fire-related calls have decreased, but all other emergencies have increased, putting a strain on volunteer fire departments.

The reoccurring issue nationwide and among Rowan County fire departments is maintaining fire response with a dwindling volunteer workforce.

In North Carolina alone, there are 1,086 fire departments listed with the National Fire Department Registry and of those registered departments, 63 percent are made up of all volunteer firefighters while 28.3 percent is mostly volunteer. These numbers do not take into account the number of departments that did not voluntarily add its name to the registry.

Statewide, the number of volunteers is declining at 11 percent to 12 percent annually, according to FEMA research.

The Post spoke with five Rowan County fire departments that are staffed entirely or mostly by volunteers. Many of these departments have had to utilize live-in programs, incentives and each other to ensure their respective communities are covered during emergencies.

All volunteer

Pooletown Fire Department, located in Richfield, is one of few area departments that operates with 100 percent volunteers.

The department operates two stations, one on Reeves Island Road and the other on Richfield Road, subsisting on a personnel roster of 28 all-volunteer individuals. The department protects an area referred to as the East Rowan Service District on top of its regular fire district. The second station was built in 2011 to help protect homes near the Stanly County line.

“Despite the amount of time and energy it costs volunteer firefighters, somehow they still manage to do it,” said Ryan Barkley, chief of Pooletown Fire Department.

Since Barkley began as chief in 2016, he’s seen people come and go. He quickly realized people no longer have the time needed to train, run calls and care for the equipment.

“Regardless, I’ve noticed that each department, including mine, has a small group of people who keep the department up and running,” he said.

Barkley, who has been in the fire service since he was 16, said the days of going to the fire station and “hanging out” while waiting for a call are over. People want to spend time with their families. He’s learned over the years to not waste his firefighters’ time.

“If you call a meeting, make it important; if you host training, make it structured and informative,” he said.

Barkley has also made it a point to include firefighters in major decisions and get their opinion on things like which type of protective fire gear they should buy and what they should purchase with certain fundraiser money the firefighters help earn.

His department’s budget took a hit due to property tax evaluations. The budget would never support a paid staff.

“The amount of money it would cost our community for paid firefighters would be enormous because of our scarce population. Rural areas such as ours have a limited budget because there are fewer people paying taxes on fewer homes, but we are expected to do the same thing as those departments who have 24-hour coverage,” Barkley said

Barkley stresses giving back to the firefighters, he said, since they are giving so much in return. He said his department hasn’t necessarily seen a decrease in volunteers.

“Our staffing levels have hovered around the same since I have been with the department in 2007,” Barkley.

Barkley said they’ve attempted to reach out to local citizens who seem to pose an interest in the fire service, but it seems as though those who have no prior exposure or experience don’t last and never make it past a few months of training.

He said it appears the younger generation doesn’t seem to be interested in the fire service, much less volunteerism.

“The most common recruits are family members of existing firefighters. The safety standards placed on volunteers are the same as full-time municipal departments and the amount of time it takes to attend training is hardship on people,” Barkley said.

Paid program

“Even with the best group of volunteer members, departments still struggle at times because of the demands for service to be provided at all hours of each day,” said South Salisbury Deputy Chief Jason Burnett.

He said to augment the department’s volunteer response, they began a part-time staffing program in January 2005 that provided paid coverage during the weekday hours of 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

“While this worked for a number of years, we found gaps in this coverage as it was limited to certain days of the weeks and hours of the day,” Burnett said.

In July 2017, the department moved to a 24-hour paid part-time staffing model. A minimum of one paid part-time employee is at the station every day, which is augmented by additional paid part-time staffing during peak incident times on weekdays and weekends. The peak incident times are between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day.

Burnett said the ultimate goal is to move to a minimum of two paid part-time employees at the station each day.

“We have been fortunate this program has actually supplemented our volunteer responses well,” he said.

He said the department is blessed with a great group of volunteer members “who have a strong passion and commitment to providing service to our community.”

“Volunteer members are the true background of our operations and critical to us being able to provide the highest level of service to our citizens,” Burnett said.

The part-time staffing model isn’t to take away from the efforts of volunteers, but simply to supplement in the times when volunteers aren’t able to respond.

In 2006, the Spencer Fire Department embarked on a paid program, where it hired firefighters as a way to guarantee someone would be at the station. Since it began the part-time paid program, the fire department has increased its call volume from 386 to 669 calls a year.

When Deputy Chief Jeremi Carter began in the fire service around 1999 to 2000, there were only a few fire departments who actually had some paid personnel.

Even with a paid staff, the minimum response requires that three people respond to a fire-related call. When the department began its paid program, it had two people. Now 11 years later, the fire department still has two paid part-time personnel.

He said there is a lack of volunteers across most fire departments.

“This is a problem affecting departments across the whole county,” he said.

He believes the change in the structure of families is one reason people aren’t volunteering much anymore.

“There’s more single-parent homes. You can’t just drop what you are doing (to respond to a call),” Carter said.

He added that more and more people don’t live in the area where they grew up and there isn’t that sense of ownership of the town in which they reside.

In the days when the railroad was booming, many businesses in Spencer, including those near Spencer Shops, would allow volunteer firefighters the opportunity to leave work to respond to a call and then return afterward.

The lack of volunteers comes down to the fact that many people “don’t have the sense of giving back to the community,” Carter said.

There’s also a lot of required training hours as well as in-house training that must take place.

Carter said he understands the state-mandated training ultimately is one way to reduce the number of line-of-duty deaths, but that extra time is a commitment.

Firefighters must have 36 hours of in-house training. Many departments like Spencer have one meeting a month that is typically three hours long that includes some sort of training. Firefighters also obtain service hours at special events such as Day out with Thomas the Tank Engine, held annually at the N.C. Transportation Museum.

His department, like many others, adopted live-in or bunk-in programs, which are open to college students or those who are training to become firefighters. Spencer Fire Department began its bunk-in program in 2016.

“They are not only helping the fire department out, but they are getting a start in a career,” Carter said.


Many departments operate using bunk-in or live-in programs where firefighters or trainees stay in the station, in most cases overnight.

East Spencer Fire Chief Shawn McBride said prior to implementing a bunk-in program in 2017, it took them 15 to 20 minutes to respond to an incident. Now that they’ve employed the program, they are at a scene within three to four minutes.

His department operates using four people who stay overnight at the station. In addition, there are 14 part-time firefighters plus three chiefs and 19 volunteers. Two people who are with the department are lifetime members who remain on the roster, but are not active.

“Without them, there’s no way we would get out the door,” McBride said of the live-in firefighters.

He said historically, the town of East Spencer has always had a hard time finding volunteer firefighters, in fact, many of the current volunteers don’t even live within the town limits.

Mutual aid

Locke Fire Chief Rusty Alexander said although his fire department operates out of three stations, they still struggle to maintain a full roster.

“We’ve had the same problems everybody has had in the last couple of years. There’s a change in society and people are not volunteering,” Alexander said.

Locke Fire Department has 52 firefighters across the three stations who respond to an average of 1,000 calls a year.

In 2017, Locke Fire Department responded to 1,400 calls, a significant increase from when Alexander first joined the department as chief in 1988 when the station only responded to about 150 calls a year.

He said the department provides mutual aid for many neighboring departments. Since the department’s increase in call volume, they’ve had to create three shifts of full-time personnel who work a 24-hour shift. Essentially, the firefighters work every third day.

Alexander estimates that of the incidents, 52 percent are for medical response and 48 percent are for fire-related incidents.

 Recruitment campaign

Earlier this year, the N.C. Association of Fire Chiefs, in partnership with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, launched a campaign to recruit volunteer firefighters.

The campaign is part of the Volunteer Workforce Solutions program designed to help fire departments in the state achieve a sustainable volunteer firefighter workforce.

The campaign will include a demographic study to determine how to recruit new volunteers as well as offer workshops that will focus on retaining current volunteers.

South Salisbury Fire Department is one of 15 chosen to participate in the two-year program. South Salisbury’s own Holly-Anne Franco is the administrator for the program. She not only will provide recruiting opportunities for her station, but others in Rowan County.

“There’s always opportunities to find something that you enjoy doing,” Franco said.

She said volunteers don’t necessarily have to want to become a firefighter or EMT but they may possess some other unique skills that could serve area departments well.

It’s about giving back to the community,  she said.

Franco said the program has had success elsewhere and she hopes that Rowan County will see strides in gaining more volunteers through the program.

To learn more about becoming a volunteer firefighter and joining a local department, visit or contact any local fire department directly.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.