Will volunteer fire companies have to turn to full-time staff?

ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY (WDBJ7) When we see the volunteer fire department at work on a structure or a highway accident, budget and staffing rarely come to mind.

But as Chief Nathan Ramsey of Rockbridge County Fire and EMS says: “Everything comes with a price tag.”

For example, Chief Ben Wilmer of the South River Volunteer Fire Department pulls open a door on the side of an engine.

“This compartment here, just this compartment here,” he explains, “Is for vehicle extraction. Just what you see in this compartment is $27,000.”

“Things cost,” says Walkers Creek V.F.D. Chief Colby Irvine. “The equipment costs money.”

And though they get some funding from the county, “It still requires more just to keep the engines on the road,” Ramsey says.

For Walkers Creek, that “more” comes from shooting matches.

“We do anywhere from ten twelve of these a year that make up a good proportion of the fundraisers we do,” Irvine says.

They’ve even customized the firehouse with a gun range in the back.

At South River one weekend, it was an indoor yard sale.

Wilmer says: “We have to get creative in our fundraising.”

And be it yard sales or shooting matches, it’s the volunteers who have to do the work.

“People think that all we do is we run down the road with the lights on and all the pretty picture stuff,” Wilmer says. “But when they get in here and join they think: We’re a volunteer fundraising agency.”

And that combined with more technical and time consuming training puts demands on a volunteer who isn’t as free as he used to be.

“Employers expect a lot different from their employees in this day and time. Folks have to work two jobs,” Ramsey explains. “Some folks leave early in the morning and don’t return home until late in the evening.”

Irvine thinks: “You’re burning people out. If we can do something to stop that burnout, I think it’ll help.”

The solution is often full-time paid firefighters.

“We know it’s going to happen eventually where we will have supplemental staffing,” says Ramsey, who is one of only two paid staff in his department.

Wilmer agrees: “I think it’s sooner rather than later.”

But does that mean the stations will lose their volunteers?

Robert Foresman, Rockbridge Emergency Management Coordinator says there will always be volunteers. “In no way do we want to see the volunteers go away because they have and continue to be the backbone of the fire and EMS system here in the county.”

“We’re providing a good service to the community because it’s the people that a lot of us grew up around, it’s our neighbors.” says Irvine. “So if we can be there when they need us, that’s what a lot of us are here for.”

 

Article by:  Bruce Young of www.wdbj7.com