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Fading tradition? Fewer volunteers join firehouse

December 1, 2018
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In this Nov. 19, 2018 photo, firefighter Michael Parrish, with the Guil-Rand Fire Department, goes through a daily checklist of inspecting equipment and supplies in Archdale, N.C. (Laura Green/The High Point Enterprise via AP)

ARCHDALE, N.C. (AP) — It’s a tradition almost as old as the republic: Residents of a community banding together to serve as volunteer firefighters and potentially save the lives, homes and possessions of their neighbors.

But in a 21st century society where there are more demands on the daily schedules of breadwinners, the number of volunteer firefighters here and across the state is dwindling.

More than 70 percent of the firefighters in North Carolina are volunteers, mainly in rural communities such as those in Randolph, Guilford and Davidson counties. But the number of new volunteer firefighters is declining 11-12 percent a year, reports the N.C. Association of Fire Chiefs.

Guil-Rand Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Causey has noted the trend at his firehouses serving northern Randolph County and parts of southern Guilford County. The Guil-Rand Fire Department has 40 paid firefighters and about the equivalent number of volunteer positions.

In his 28 years as a firefighter, Causey said he’s never seen a period where it’s been harder to recruit volunteer firefighters as now.

“It’s not just us. It’s across North Carolina and across the United States,” Causey told The High Point Enterprise.

Causey attributes part of the reason for the decline in new volunteer firefighters to fundamental changes in economics and the nature of jobs.

A generation or two ago, a breadwinner could secure a decent-paying job at a furniture factory or textile mill working a traditional 40 hours a week. Today, to earn the same amount of income, a breadwinner may need to work a pair of jobs 50-60 hours per week, Causey said.

The changes in the modern economy mean that someone who might otherwise consider volunteer firefighting doesn’t feel that they have the spare hours for the training and fire station assignment shifts.

“People don’t have the time like they used to,” Causey said. “You’re asking people to get up in the middle of the night to fight a fire, then work their 60 hours a week.”

The family income crimp on volunteer firefighting particularly hits young people starting out in jobs, which Causey said means the base of volunteer firefighters is aging.

“We have volunteers who are 50 to 70 years old who have been volunteers for a long time,” Causey said.

For Guil-Rand volunteer firefighter Arch Hamilton, his service stems from his commitment to his community and the example of his late father. Hamilton’s father, Elbert, served for decades in the Guil-Rand Fire Department after starting as a volunteer when a teenager and rising to assistant chief.

“I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do it. It was a calling I felt,” Hamilton said.

The 46-year-old professional insurance agent started volunteering with Guil-Rand Fire Department 12 years ago. Because of his day job, he volunteers at night and on weekends.

Though he’s committed to volunteer firefighting, Hamilton told The Enterprise that he understands why some people decline to take up the mantle.

“We talk about this at the station — it’s society. People are busy,” Hamilton said. “You are having to commit to hours of training and calls in the middle of the night in 20-degree weather at a burning house.”

Hamilton said one factor may involve parents having more commitments with their children in outside and after-school activities than a generation or more ago.

“Your kids are playing travel ball, and you need to be with them. Kids are more involved in things,” he said.

Another factor crimping the number of volunteer firefighters is geographic — the percentage of people living in rural communities has declined relative to residents of urban and suburban areas. Since most volunteer fire departments serve rural areas, the base of potential applicants is shrinking relative to the overall population.

The issue has become so pressing that the N.C. Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Fire Chiefs have embarked on a two-year campaign to recruit volunteer firefighters.

The Guil-Rand Fire Department is one of 15 fire departments in the state to receive a grant from the N.C. Association of Fire Chiefs and International Association of Fire Chiefs to help with recruitment materials and strategies to find new volunteers, Causey said.

One pitch that the Guil-Rand Fire Department makes to potential volunteers is that a volunteer position can lead to a career as a paid firefighter, Causey told The Enterprise.

“We can offer you the pay and benefits of a very rewarding career,” he said.

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Information from: High Point Enterprise, http://www.hpenews.com

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