BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — Fire departments across Brunswick County are fighting a blaze inside their own stations.
The North Carolina Fire Chiefs Association reports an average of 600 volunteer firefighters are leaving departments each year. That’s not only impacting response times according to fire officials, but also the cost to maintain current departments.
“The volunteer service is dying out at an alarming rate,” said Leland EMS Battalion Chief Amy Burton.
Burton has been at the front of Leland Fire and EMS’s recruitment campaigns to maintain volunteers. It’s the departments around Leland, however, that Burton has seen impacted the most.
“If we can only get two men onto a truck to roll out, and you have a structure fire, then you’re way behind the ballgame from the national average of what should be on a scene,” Burton said.
Burton says it’s nothing against the smaller departments. She says they do the best with what they have. It’s a matter of the “have” that hurts them all, including residents.
“We have some that are doing a great job, and they have their interest in and they have their members, ” Burton said. “They respond as often to just about every call. And then there are some that do not have the people to respond that they need to.”
Those that are hurting sit in the middle of the county, according to fire administrator Mack Smith. Smith spent years as a volunteer in New Hanover County, eventually moving into a paid position when growth forced the county to move into a completely paid department.
“It’s not just Brunswick County. This is the fire service nationwide,” Smith said.
Smith and Burton notice it’s a change in culture in the community that’s causing the shift. Both started as volunteers and say that’s how firefighters launched careers into the service, but now potential volunteers and current ones have to make sure they can make ends meet.
“People may not have as much time to volunteer, which is causing a lot of problems for our volunteer departments within the county,” Burton said.
The problems with the ongoing shortage are showing impacts in the county coffers. Last year several departments requested fire fee increases. Smith says this year looks like there will not be a need to see similar increases, but it’s about where the money has to go now.
“Most of the time now when departments are increasing their fire fees it’s due to having to staff the fire stations when typically it was staffed by volunteers. Now they have to pay people to be there,” Smith said. “Those northern and southern departments are doing fairly well with the fire fees. The other ones the fire fees are just barely covering the people that they are hiring.”
Brunswick County is serviced by 21 fire departments. The county has more than a dozen of them listed as “volunteer” departments. Smith says the fact, however, is that a majority of those departments have to have a paid employee there during the day to listen out for 911 calls.
Leland Fire noticed the need. Forty out of the roughly 80 personnel are volunteers, and that comes from the work Chief Burton spearheaded with the help of the SAFER grant from the chiefs association.
“It can improve. It’s just a focused effort,” Burton said.
You can see more about what fire departments like Leland can offer volunteers. Burton says it’s not all about responding to vehicle crashes or burning buildings, but also educational and training events that volunteers can step in and have positive impacts for area departments.