York County fire chiefs aren’t exactly going back to the drawing board searching for volunteers. But they might go back to the classroom.
The 18 departments in the county could use more volunteers, experts say, to meet the demand in growing areas.
“Nationwide,” said Bill Shanahan, county manager. “It’s not just York County.”
County staff and local fire chiefs recently met combing through details of a new 10-year fire study. Several recommendations deal with how to get more paid or volunteer help. One idea already in the works is going into high schools.
The York and Clover school districts have new programs for students who want to become professional firefighters. The York department put an engine in its school district program. County fire safety put one in the Clover program, which is about a year old. Students who complete the program leave school with training to seek employment and to volunteer fighting fires.
“The goal is career path, specifically,” said Andy Merriman, assistant county manager. “Recruitment and retention of volunteers is kind of an aside.”
County leaders would like to expand the programs.
“In our two smallest school systems we have it,” said York County Councilman Britt Blackwell, “but in our two largest we don’t.”
Amanda Foster, director of the county department of fire safety, reached out to Rock Hill and Fort Mill school districts.
“We figured out why they don’t have a program and ways we can help,” she said.
The Rock Hill schools need apparatus, like a fire engine, and a certified instructor. If county or city fire units can help start the program, it could mean opportunity for volunteer departments in and around Rock Hill.
“These students, when they finish the program, would be able to volunteer for Lesslie and Oakdale and anywhere else in Rock Hill,” Foster said.
Lesslie Fire-Rescue Chief Tommy White said he has to go about a mile beyond his district to find volunteers. Lesslie serves the southeastern part of Rock Hill, outside city limits.
“Having a program in the schools in the Rock Hill school district would benefit the city fire department,” White said. “It would benefit the county stations and all that, especially depending on where they lived.”
Oakdale Fire Department Chief Bill Dunlap said a Rock Hill program could put more volunteers on his rolls, too.
“I’m very much concerned about recruitment,” he said. “On the south side of Rock Hill, we’ve pretty much stayed the same amount of personnel we have for years. We get one in, usually one gets out.”
School programs help one of the main reasons fire experts say it’s difficult to find and keep volunteers.
“Time, mainly,” Foster said.
A basic firefighting certification requires more than 100 training hours. Advanced requirements can take three times as long.
The state fire academy class has an eight-week course. Fire chiefs say after completion, it’s like college football recruiting with chiefs from across the state in need. There is no guarantee a student from this area returns here to volunteer.
“It’s important that we get those (programs) into the school systems so they’re not having to take time after they graduate, trying to balance a job and taking classes,” Foster said.
Plus, chiefs say, age 15 to 18 is prime firefighter recruiting.
“In fire service, either you get it or you don’t,” White said. “It’s usually in you or it’s not.”
Several chiefs said they started as young volunteers.
“That’s back when I got in,” Dunlap said. “It kept me out of a lot of trouble.”
Dunlap now has 38 years fighting fires.
“Once you get it in your blood, it’s hard to get rid of,” he said. “That’s the reason you’ve got a lot of these old-timers here. They can’t get it out of their blood.”
Don Love, chief at Bethel Volunteer Fire Department serving Lake Wylie, said youth programs make a difference.
“Bethel, Bethany and Clover sponsor an explorer program through the Boy Scouts,” Love said. “It’s been going on for eight or nine years or so. And we get a few out of that.”
Those participants could benefit from school programs.
“Most of them that are in that explorer program now are coming out of Rock Hill, because they didn’t have anything in Rock Hill,” Love said.
Other recommendations in the 10-year study include hiring full-time firefighters, or a combination of paid and volunteer.
“Sprinkled throughout the report you’re going to see that there’s a growing need in York County, specifically, for paid personnel,” Merriman said. “Many of the departments, even in advance of this report, have begun hiring full-time guys to staff during daytime hours. Some of those are turning into 24-hour shifts.”
Studies show structure fires are down 50% in the past three decades, he said, because of better housing codes and other factors. But there also has been a 300% increase in emergency response calls. Fire chiefs say they get calls to assist emergency responders with anything from wrecks to moving large patients to victims found unresponsive.
“These guys are running a lot of EMS calls,” Merriman said. “And a lot of those EMS calls require a different type of training and different types of equipment than had previously been used.”
Councilman Robert Winkler, who serves western York County, understands the training challenges.
“To get that many hours, that’s two years or so at a part-time thing, before you can really even start fighting a fire,” Winkler said.
Parts of his district struggle more, too, he said, without a large population base to pull from. Many volunteer firefighters in his community commute and can’t respond to as many fires.
“When the pagers went off, the bosses said go do what you’ve got to do and come back,” Winkler said. “In today’s society you can’t do that. They can only do it when they’re home, or if they’re full-time job is close enough.”
Flint Hill fire chief David Jennings remembers when his units crossed the threshold of 700 calls per year. Like others, Flint Hill has a special tax district paying for some full-time firefighters. With a growing population and more businesses, Jennings said getting multiple calls a night is common.
“You can’t expect a volunteer to get up and respond to five calls in a night, and then get up in the morning to go to a full-time job,” Jennings said.
Chiefs say the volunteer need isn’t dire, yet.
“We’re not in the crisis mode either,” Sharon Fire Department Chief Oliver Dowdle said, “but I do have some concerns.”
County leaders say one option is to use a volunteer pay-per-response program. The incentive would pay volunteers based on how many calls they respond to. Several departments already do this drawing from their own budgets.
“We have to rely on the volunteers and I think we should rely on the volunteers,” Merriman said. “The approach on how we do that is going to be imperative. It’s almost going to become more of a mercenary approach.”
Details are being worked out. A current incentive program, Foster said, requires volunteers to be vested and in the system 20 years.
“That’s a little excessive when you’re trying to recruit and retain,” she said.
Volunteer and combination units in York County range from fewer than 20 to almost 70 firefighters. One unit responded to fewer than 50 calls last year. Another responded to almost 2,000.
Dunlap answered how his department responded to almost 350 calls last year with 21 active members: “We’re busting our butts to do it.”