What happens when there aren’t enough firefighters?

May 9th, 2016

By Sharon Smith

Delmarva Media Group Correspondent


Brian Martin, earlier this month, responded to a house fire in Rehoboth Beach along with several other fire companies.

The chief of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company listened as the woman who owned the house expressed her gratitude to the firefighters, thankful that they were paid to respond to emergencies like hers.

Martin let her know that the firefighters were volunteers. In fact, Martin left his job as a contractor to help respond to the call.

“We are not career staff,” Martin said. “We’re not sitting in the firehouse, waiting for calls to come in. We all have jobs — some multiple jobs. It is getting harder for people to volunteer.”

The Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Department has been relying on volunteers like Martin, who are willing to leave their jobs to help out their neighbors during a crisis, for the last 68 years. In the coastal town of Bethany Beach — that is getting hard and harder to do.

Bethany Beach, South Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island are home to a growing population of retirees and expensive housing. The average Bethany Beach resident is 63 years old. The median home price is slightly more than $500,000, according to Sperling’s Best Places to Live.

The department doesn’t have a large pool of young men and women living in the community who can fulfill the volunteer ranks needed to respond to the 350 to 400 emergency calls the department responds to each year, Martin said. The department averages 1,100 ambulance calls per year, but that service is paid for by residents and the ability to bill people’s health insurance.

 

Brian Martin is the chief of the Bethany Volunteer Fire Co. Martin has a full-time job. Martin said it is getting harder for fire departments to recruit volunteers. (Photo: Sharon Smith photo

Brian Martin is the chief of the Bethany Volunteer Fire Co. Martin has a full-time job. Martin said it is getting harder for fire departments to recruit volunteers. (Photo: Sharon Smith photo)

Many of the men and women volunteering at the department now actually live in nearby communities like Ocean View. That is where Martin lives. It takes him seven minutes to get to the fire station from his house. The standard to respond to a fire call is eight minutes.

“It does make it tough to respond within eight minutes,” he said, of the out-of-town commute.

The areas covered by the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Department are fine as of now.

The department has found creative ways to make things work. They have a program where they let high school students who have just graduated and college students live at the fire department in exchange for volunteering 32 hours per week, Martin said. The department also has opened up volunteering to certified firefighters from around the state. The company actually has a volunteer from New Castle who volunteers for one 12-hour shift. The volunteer is a paid paramedic in Sussex County, so he volunteers on days between his shifts before he drives back home to northern Delaware.

Martin knows that it is a matter of time before those efforts will not be enough. The department going forward needs to hire and pay for four firefighters. It would cost about $40,000 per professional firefighter. The communities of Bethany Beach, South Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island and Sea Colony are already paying to maintain eight professional EMTs. The department came up with an agreement in 2008 for residents to pay for the ambulance service when Millville Volunteer Fire Co. could no longer provide service because the calls were too much to handle.

About 8,500 property owners in the communities it serves now pay for the ambulance service out of the 10,000 properties the department serves. Martin said that the department is now looking at implementing a similar system for the fire side of the department.

Additionally, the department is looking toward state lawmakers to introduce legislation next session that would allow the county to place a tax on people’s property tax bill to pay for the service. The department has many hurdles to overcome before that can happen. It first has to educate the public. Then, the department has to get other fire-fighting organizations to agree to the state legislation.

The department has been working with State Rep. Ron Gray, R-Selbyville, and State Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, to craft a solution.

“They were looking for state legislation similar to what you would do for a school district,” Gray said, “Let the people in that fire district decide whether they would want to fund things going forward.”

The communities that are being served now by the department are not in jeopardy of their calls going unanswered, or the department falling by the wayside, responded Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Gordon.

“We are not at a point that Bethany Beach would not get fire service if surrounding municipalities do not participate in funding,” Gordon wrote in an email. “The BBVFC continues to service the fire district while local governments work together to resolve the problem at the local jurisdiction, county, and state levels.”

Qualified part-time firefighters have been hired to get the department through the busy summer months, Gordon wrote. Other fire companies also are available to help with calls, he wrote.

Still, all agree that a more permanent solution to the shortage of volunteers is something that needs to be addressed.

“I think public safety is really important,” Gray said. “I think all the communities will come around. I think they just want to make sure that it is done in a fair and equitable way.”

In the meantime, Martin will continue to volunteer to put out fires and answering emergency calls. He just will be having a lot more conversations with residents like the one he had with the homeowner in Rehoboth Beach.

Copyright 2016 Delmarva Media Group