Despite trying for a year to increase the number of volunteer firefighters on its roster, the Elkin Fire Department is seeing little reward to its recruiting efforts.
If the department falls below 20 members on its roster, it could mean an increase in property owners’ fire insurance rates, and as of just more than a week ago, the roster had 21 members.
Chief Mike Morton updated the town commissioners on the recruiting efforts of the fire department during their board retreat on Feb. 12.
He said the department’s goal is to have 40 trained firefighters on the roster. The 21 now on the roster include three career (paid) employees and two retirees assisting with code enforcement, Morton reported.
Already two firefighters retired in 2016, and this year, at least two more will become eligible for retirement, Morton said. “If the roster drops below 20 firefighters with the minimum training, the town may lose its insurance rating.
“The state will put the town on probation and we’d have a year to recruit. Our rating is at 5 now, and it would go to 10 if there are not 20 firefighters,” he said, noting that would increase property owners’ fire insurance costs, but he wasn’t sure the exact percentage it would go up.
The department has used several tactics hoping to get a response from those interested in volunteering including word of mouth, the town newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, the newspaper and radio. Morton said he also has been giving presentations to area stakeholders, such as the chamber of commerce, who since the retreat put out a letter from Morton to all the chamber members about the need for volunteer firefighters.
“We’ve made the fire department a visible entity at events like festivals,” Morton said.
Also, the department now has a website, and this spring he plans to hold an open house for the community.
“How well has recruitment efforts worked? Since January 2015, we’ve received four applications. Two of those were not complete, and one could not be a volunteer because the applicant didn’t have a high school diploma or GED which is required to be able to gain training certification through the community college,” he said.
Morton had answers as to why he believes it’s been so hard to recruit new firefighters as volunteers, too.
“Because our town is aging, and it’s hard to find people interested in hard work,” he said. “Economics — folks who don’t work in town have a hard time volunteering in town, and it’s hard to get away to help when you’re at work.”
Another factor is the number of hours of training required for the position. “You have to have 378 hours of training for the initial certification, not counting 36 hours every year of continuing education to stay on the roster,” Morton reported.
He said the department’s call volume also has increased every year. Already in January, the department has responded to 50 calls, with 35 percent of those being fire related. “The more we’re doing puts more demands on what volunteers are expected to do,” he said.
Also, Morton said there is a lack of local training opportunities. “Training through Surry Community College is not often in Elkin, and we have to find time to travel across the county or somewhere else in the state to get the training,” he said.
In general, the culture has changed, Morton added, noting a difficulty finding volunteers for town boards and other volunteer needs in the community.
“Historically our department has not done a good job at recruiting. We relied on word of mouth and we were picky. The volunteers had to live in town. We don’t have that rule anymore,” he said.
Mayor Lestine Hutchens said she had just had a conversation with another town representative from another part of the state about others having the same “lack of young people” willing to volunteer at the fire department.
“It is not a unique problem we are facing,” Morton said agreeing.
Commissioner Bob Norton asked if Morton “foresees having to hire more career firefighters.”
“I hope not,” the chief answered, noting that having to hire firefighters will mean increased expenses and a need for more revenue. “We have to maintain a level of service.”
Already the department pays volunteers for their hours in training and their hours per call, he said, when asked about incentives for volunteers.
Hutchens asked about a junior firefighting program, and Morton said those juniors don’t count toward the roster number required by the state for insurance purposes. Also, he said certified firefighters are needed to oversee and train the juniors.
Commissioner J.L. Lowe suggested the possibility of merging with another department, but Morton said that could be difficult because Elkin is a municipal department.
“What about working with local businesses and encouraging businesses to provide incentives to those who allow firefighters to volunteer,” suggested facilitator for the retreat Jesse Day of the Piedmont Triad Regional Council.
“I would maintain 80 percent of this town are unaware we won’t have fire insurance,” said Commissioner Dr. Skip Whitman. “This is near an emergency level. We’ve got to raise awareness in town, get involvement from Walmart, PGW, we as a board need to talk to them.
“You could supplement someone as an employer,” he said of a way businesses can encourage those interested in volunteering, such as giving them time off work to attend training.
“It’s more than insurance, it is a matter of public safety,” added Whitman. “We need solutions. We’ll get to where we’re raising taxes to pay for firefighters.”
But Morton added, “If people aren’t willing to volunteer, we can’t make them.”
Hutchens suggested reaching out to the JROTC and other groups who are service minded.
Whitman challenged Morton to bring back five solutions to the problem to the board on how the board can help him fix the problem. “Go out of the box,” he said.
Morton added, “This is a problem throughout the state and nation, and no one has figured out why.”
Those interested in applying as a volunteer firefighter can do so by calling the Elkin Fire Department at 36-794-6481, visiting its website at elkinfire.com or dropping by the station at 304 N. Front St.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.