According to the National Fire Protection Association, 70 percent of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers.
That is a staggering number when you take into account the inherent dangers of being a firefighter and the intense training requirements placed on men and women whose fire service is secondary to additional full-time careers.
Across the country, the number of volunteers in the fire service is shrinking, leaving many communities with aging or understaffed fire departments as the number of calls for service continue to increase.
So, what happens if you call 911 and nobody is available to respond? The emergency doesn’t just go away.
To remedy low manpower some smaller communities, those that can afford it, have begun hiring paid firefighters to staff at least one responding unit at all times.
In Franklin County several fire districts, including Boles, Pacific, Union, St. Clair and Sullivan, have hired career firefighters to guarantee manpower is at safe levels to protect the communities they serve while keeping the first responders safe as well.
Boles Fire Protection District Chief James Casey says he currently has 26 career firefighters on staff to cover four stations in the 70-square-mile district.
A crew consists of one engineer and one officer on a truck.
“We also have about 20 volunteers,” Casey said. “We have a lot of people come and go, but we’ve had a good core group for the last 5 to 10 years.”
Casey, who has been chief since 2000, first joined the department at age 18.
“Our roster has gone up and down the past 3 or 4 years,” Casey explained. “We lose a few and we gain a few. It’s hard for them to commit the time to calls and the training. Family commitments and both the husband and wife working makes it tough.”
Casey said because of the career firefighters employed by the district, they haven’t had any issues responding to calls.
Although not a new tactic, Boles and other departments are relying more on mutual aid from neighboring districts for reinforcement of manpower and equipment at larger incidents.
Nearby Pacific Fire Protection District currently has 18 career firefighters and 15 volunteers.
Recently installed Pacific fire chief Steve Sagehorn, who was hired from outside the department, says he relies heavily on the veteran staff.
“We have a pretty good staff that has been with us a long time,” Sagehorn said. “They are dedicated to helping the community.”
Although Sagehorn has only been in office since last month, he said he has seen a few new firefighters come in.
The Pacific Fire Protection District covers 75 square miles with three fire stations.
In Union, Fire Chief Russ Hamilton says the number of volunteers has dropped quite a bit.
“This (fire service) makes so much of a demand on people’s time,” Hamilton said. “We currently have 15 career firefighters and 10 volunteers.”
Hamilton explained his department’s strategy is to keep one station staffed around the clock.
“Our Station 1 is staffed with three shifts of five firefighters each,” Hamilton explained. “But, we know that should be improved upon.”
Hamilton added UFD has been conducting trials of staffing their Station 3 in the eastern portion of their district since that area is seeing the largest amount of growth and encompasses Interstate 44.
Station 3 had been traditionally staffed by volunteers, but Hamilton said fire officials wondered if it needed a full-time crew to help with responses in the area.
In early June, the normal five-firefighter crew was split into two groups — one to Station 1 and the other to Station 3.
The test period ended in early August. Union’s fire district covers 96 square miles.
Not all large departments have had to resort to paying firefighters to serve the community and are still making due with volunteers only.
In Washington, the all-volunteer department boasts a roster of 69 firefighters covering 65 square miles.
If you called the Washington Fire Department (WFD) in 2017, the volunteers were at your door in less than five minutes.
Just under 600 times last year volunteers dropped what they were doing and put their lives on the line for neighbors and total strangers in Washington.
In 2017, WFD members participated in more than 4,060 hours of training.
The department gained four new members last year and is currently seeking even more.
The Sullivan Fire Protection District comprises approximately 174 square miles of mostly rural area, and includes several miles of Interstate 44.
According to its website, it is a “combination” organization, with both career and volunteer personnel, with one crew of full-time personnel supplemented by volunteers, responding from five fire stations.
The website currently lists nine career firefighters and 20 volunteers.
St. Clair is one of the largest fire districts in Franklin County, covering 243 square miles with four stations.
Fire Capt. Dan Cooley said St. Clair fire district has 15 paid firefighters and about 30 volunteer firefighters.
He added that the district is worried about staffing.
“We seem to be running more and more calls a year and additional staffing will be a must within the next five years,” Cooley said.
The median ages are between 32-36 for St. Clair firefighters.
Requests for information from the Beaufort-Leslie, Gerald-Rosebud, and New Haven-Berger fire districts were not answered.
All eight of the fire districts in Franklin County are taxing entities and the total assessed valuation for 2018 was more than $1.6 billion.