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Causey hears volunteer fire department's recruitment woes

021218MikeCausey

North Carolina Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Mike Causey (left) speaks to local firefighters at the Elizabeth City Fire Station on Halstead Boulevard, Monday.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

For Mike Causey, it’s the concern he hears from volunteer fire department chiefs no matter where he goes in the state:

The number of people willing to serve as volunteer firefighters continues to dwindle, as departments struggle to recruit younger people to replace firefighters who retire.    

It’s a concern Causey, the state’s insurance commissioner and state fire marshal, heard again on Monday during his visit to Pasquotank and Camden counties. 

William Lewis, chief of the Pasquotank Providence Volunteer Fire Department, told Causey that his department's biggest challenge is recruiting and keeping volunteers.

"We're not getting the new kids coming out of school," Lewis said. "They've just got other things — and the community is not quite at the top of the list like it used to be. Most of my recruits now are 30-up."

Causey, who was visiting with local fire officials at the Elizabeth City Fire Station on Halstead Boulevard, asked Lewis if there was anything his office could do to help.

"I wish there was," Lewis replied. "I think it's just the generation we have to deal with right now. We have to figure out something."

Al Byrum, assistant chief of the Nixonton Volunteer Fire Department, told Causey his department has the same problem recruiting new volunteer firefighters the Pasquotank Providence department does.

Byrum noted that for years the Nixonton VFD could depend on lots of local residents, family business operators and workers, as well as farmers to staff its ranks.

"Now, most people work out away from here — and that's what creates a big problem," he said.

Byrum, who's retired, noted the chief of Nixonton’s department lives 45 minutes away.

Causey agreed that the shift in where people in rural communities now work has affected volunteer fire departments. He noted that many larger companies don't want their employees taking time off or being called away from work to fight fires.

"So, there's a large number of factors involved. And we're just trying to work around those," he said.

One thing that is helping small rural volunteer fire departments recruit new members, Causey said, are the junior firefighting programs now offered at many high schools.

Lewis told Causey the junior firefighting program at Pasquotank County High School has been a help. In fact, the Pasquotank Providence department has gotten four or five new recruits from the program, he said.

Lewis said being able to draw some volunteers who are retired from military service has also helped.

"They hit the door and they're ready to go," he said.

Elizabeth City firefighter Reese Grady, who was at the fire station Monday, told Causey that he in fact got interested in firefighting as a 17-year-old student in Pasquotank County High's junior firefighter program.

"I was looking for something to do after high school. I fell in love with it. Thanks to the program, I was able to do it as a career," he said.

Grady said interest in the program seems to be catching on. He recalls there being only three students in the class he was in. The program now has grown to enroll approximately 20 per class, he said.

During a visit to Edenton last summer, Causey said the state offers support services to volunteer fire departments to aid their recruitment efforts. But he noted that some VFDs provide their own incentives to attract new recruits.

Some departments, he said, add a small amount to the pensions firefighters are eligible to receive after 20 years of service. Others may pay for a volunteer's out-of-pocket expenses for gear, equipment or fire service-related coursework they need. He also noted that other states offer incentives like lifetime hunting and/or fishing licenses to draw more volunteer firefighters.

Causey said another concern of volunteer fire departments is the high number of firefighters they need to become certified. He said the state has been trying to help, noting his office worked with lawmakers in 2017 to reduce staffing requirements.

He said the minimum requirement for firefighters at smaller departments has been reduced from 20 to 15 and the minimum number of substations has been reduced from eight to four.

"So, we've been doing a lot of things to make it easier to retain firefighters and help as much as we can with recruiting," he said.

He also noted that his office and the N.C. Air National Guard joined forces last year to establish a state emergency training center to help train firefighters at Stanly County Airport. The facility is centrally located in the state and features a variety of types of terrains: lakes, a river, a state park and a national forest.

According to Causey's office, North Carolina had approximately 52,000 firefighters, roughly 14,000 of whom are career firefighters. The rest are volunteers.

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