NC Fire Dept. Faces 5-Alarm Staffing Problem

The need is as critical as ever — more so now that today’s firefighter is more than a person with a helmet and a fire hose. Modern day firefighters go through months of training to receive basic certification that must be followed up with ongoing education.

They still put out fires, but also they must have training in emergency medical response, rescue techniques on land and on water, personal safety education, building construction and more.

“Anybody who doesn’t know who to call, calls the fire department,” said Matthew Britt, Randolph Community College coordinator/instructor of fire and rescue services.

Randolph County officials have struggled with this question for several years. Those people in charge of county fire departments have been sounding the alarm for much longer. Like many counties, Randolph County has a training program for firefighters through Randolph Community College (RCC).

It even includes a youth fire academy. In a proactive response, local government authorities included long range planning to address the problem in the county’s 20-year Strategic Plan. With programs in place, the question now is, how did we get to a point where fire departments struggle to find staff and what can be done about it?

Addressing the need Britt says the days when a community could get by with a building, a fire truck and a dedicated staff of unpaid volunteers are over.

Communities, especially urban communities, have always understood the need for fire protection. Early towns usually funded a community fire wagon and later, fire trucks, that were the rallying point for volunteers to come to the aid of neighbors when fires broke out. Only the largest cities in the state, Wilmington (1897), Charlotte (1907), Durham (1909) and Raleigh (1912), could afford full-time, paid firefighters.

Fires were disasters in rural areas, too. However, the structure of the early fire departments wasn’t established until the 1940s. Unfortunately, response to rural fires prior to that was often a rally to rebuild more than an effort to put out a blaze.

Britt said the rural fire department was built on the availability of volunteers who worked structured shifts at the local mill. If the call came out during the day, second shift workers could respond. If it came in the evening, first shift workers were available. Britt said it was also common for mill owners to allow their workers to leave the job in the case of a large fire.

Today, he said, manufacturing jobs are fewer, and fewer business owners can or will let their workers go to answer a fire call.

“With their career and family, most people don’t have time to volunteer,” he said. “People work up to 60 hours a week or their kids have stuff to do after school or they are just so busy.”

Those who do decide on either a career or volunteer status with the local fire department quickly find out that it’s more than having a strong back and a desire to extinguish fires. Modern requirements Britt said the Cadet Firefighter Academy offers day and night courses.

The day academy meets Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., usually from September through December. The night academy meets three days a week, from 6-10 p.m. The night academy runs for about one year. Both classes involve 400 hours of training to reach certification.

Once the basic training is complete, students must take an additional 120 hours of training to get a rescue certification. At the end of that, Britt said students can do a 3-day program that teaches them how to apply for a position at a fire department.

Britt said the academy can take up to 15 people, but most classes range in size from 7-12. The average age of the student is 18-22, he said. Generally those people who come to the day academy have a goal to become a career firefighter.

Those who come to evening classes typically plan to be a volunteer at their local department, he said. Given the demand, Britt said 20 percent of graduates will land a position within the first six months. Eventually, he said, all of them will find positions. The next generation Business leaders have seen the need to reach out to younger audiences to fill positions in the modern manufacturing environment.

Pathways to Prosperity through RCC is one such effort to intrigue youngsters in the possibilities of a career in advanced manufacturing. Local authorities have taken a similar approach by reaching out to high schoolers to pique an interest in becoming a firefighter.

Britt said RCC started a High School Fire Academy in February 2015. The class recently graduated its first four students. Students earn credits toward the completion of the North Carolina Firefighter Certification, roughly 90 percent of the credits needed, according to Britt.

Classes cover topics such as fire behavior, personal protective equipment and emergency medical care. A student who chooses to complete the entire program will be just a few classes short of becoming a North Carolina certified firefighter upon their 18th birthday. Britt said students can begin classes at age 14. When they complete the high school academy, they are ready to participate with an area fire department.

They will not go out on a fire truck but can participate in support activities. Students must be 18 before they can become a paid firefighter in North Carolina.

For anyone who thinks they don’t have what it takes to be a member of a fire department, Britt said to think again. “There is plenty to do beyond being on a fire truck,” he said. “What you need is a desire to serve and the commitment. There is a role for just about anyone.”

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