Cleburne County has 12 volunteer fire departments: Abernathy, Borden Springs, Fruithurst, Heflin, Hollis Crossroads, Macedonia, Micaville, Muscadine, Pineywoods-Oak Level, Ranburne, Turkey Heaven, which has two stations, and Upper Cane Creek. There are no career departments in the county.
Across the country, the vast majority of fire departments are mostly or all volunteer. According to National Fire Protection Association’s 2011 U.S. Fire Department Profile, there are approximately 30,145 fire departments in the nation. 2,550 are career departments while 1,865 are mostly career. A whopping 20,200 are all volunteer, while 5,330 are mostly volunteer. Out of the estimated 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, 69 percent or 756,400 are volunteer, the profile states.
The volunteer firefighters who work at the departments say they are dedicated to helping their communities. Still, recruiting and maintaining firefighters is getting harder to do, said William Neal, president of the Alabama Association of Volunteer Fire Departments and Chief of the Luverne Fire Department.
He calls it the graying of the departments.
“The average age of volunteer firefighters across the nation is going up every year,” Neal said.
The commitment to be a volunteer firefighter is extensive, said Jamie Nolen, volunteer with the Turkey Heaven Volunteer Fire Department. He took the 160 hours first firefighter training course which certified him to become a volunteer firefighter. He also took first responder training, hazardous material training and the second firefighter training course, each 40 hours, Nolen said. He took all the courses between 1999 and 2002 and because he also had a day job, the training was during his free time.
“Basically, I left the house at 4 a.m. and didn’t get back ‘til 10 p.m.,” Nolen said. “That was off and on for three years.”
On top of that the volunteer firefighters are required to do ongoing training, as well as answering calls, he said. But Nolen said it was worth it to him just to know he was helping the community.
“When you have somebody come up, especially a little kid, and thank you for what you’ve done, that’s worth more than a million bucks,” Nolen said.
But volunteer fire departments need to find new ways to stay manned, Neal said.
“We have a heck of a time with retention and recruitment,” Neal said.
Retention and Recruitment
Neal said the State Legislature recently created an annuity that it hopes will help keep volunteer firefighters on the job. It would provide a small retirement benefit, around $300 for firefighters after they retire, he said. However, although the annuity was created through the Legislature, it doesn’t have a means of steady and meaningful funding, Neal said.
The local departments are feeling the pinch and are responding, too. Carl Smith, treasurer for the Ranburne Rescue Squad and Volunteer Fire Department. He’s been a member of the department for 32 years, he said.
The Ranburne Rescue Squad was founded in 1966 and in 1968 added the fire department, Smith said. Right now the department has 27 or 28 members, down from 32 the year before, he said. The Ranburne department started the Explorer Program about three years ago to help recruit young members, he said.
The program, run through Boy Scouts, offers firefighter training and competitions for 14 through 18 year olds, he said. At the end of the program, the boys can take the test to become a certified firefighter.
The department has had two boys go through the program who have come back to be firefighters in Ranburne, he said.
But it can be expensive. The department pays $600 to $800 for the students to take each of the classes. That’s where much of the department’s fundraising has gone for the last few years, Smith said.
The Alabama Fire College has also come up with a way to try to recruit young firefighters. It has partnered with the Alabama Department of Education Career Technical Education Division to create a curriculum to expand the number of Emergency Medical Service/Fire Career Technical programs across the state.
Heflin Fire Chief Jonathan Adams said he has approached the Cleburne County Schools about the program. But if it is added to the list of programs at the technical school in the county it would be a couple of years before it could be implemented, he said.
The new program would teach the 160 hour first firefighter course and the students would be able to test for their certification at completion, Adams said.
“We would go in and actually test their skills,” he said.
Jerry Fuller, operations manager of the Upper Cane Creek Fire Department, has been a career fireman with the Carrollton, Ga., fire department for about 24 years and a volunteer firefighter for nearly as long.
“My whole life’s been fire,” Fuller said. “You just see it and its’ something you want to do.”
His father, Jerry, Sr., started the Upper Cane Creek Fire Department in 1988 after a couple died in a fire just around the corner from where the fire station stands now, Fuller said.
The department started with land donated for the station and a couple of pickup trucks with water tanks welded in the back, he said. It was nothing like today, Fuller said. Back in 1988, they just intended to provide fire protection, he said.
But over the years, the firefighters’ job has expanded to include answering calls to vehicle accidents, weather related calls such as trees down, medical calls such as heart attacks or search and rescue when someone goes miss-ing, Fuller said. In fact, Fuller said the majority of calls are probably not fire calls.
The fire calls the Heflin department gets are vastly outnumbered by other calls. In 2012, the Heflin fire department received 208 calls; of those, just 53 were for fires, Adams said. The other calls included 57 vehicle collisions, 10 medical calls, 22 hazardous materials and 62 weather related calls, Adams said.
Neal calls it mission creep.
Neal, a retired state trooper, said the expansion of the firefighters’ job description has come on in part because of the thinning down of police departments and emergency medical service departments. Since the vast majority of firefighters in the state and across the nation are volunteers, it has helped save the taxpayers billions of dollars, he said.
Other benefits to taxpayers
Having fire protection available in a community is an important benefit to residents during a fire. But it can also save the residents money. For instance the people in Upper Cane Creek Fire Department’s territory may receive low-er property insurance rates after the department lowered its rating from the Insurance Services Office from a 7 to a 5 this year. The ranking goes from 1, which is perfect, to a 10, which is no fire protection, Fuller said. A department starts out at a 10 and has to prove to the Insurance Services Office that it can go down each step on the rating ladder, he added.
Fuller said the new rating was the culmination of a two-year process including lots of paperwork, partnership with other local agencies and a review by ISO inspectors.
The fire department is graded on three things: the water system is 40 percent, 9-1-1 service is 10 percent and the fire department itself is 50 percent of the rating, he said.
“There’s two sides to that three-headed dragon that really, my hands are tied,” Fuller said.
The department has added hose capacity, eight breathing apparatuses, 8 hose nozzles and 20 spare air cylinders. It’s proven that it can get four of its 12 firefighters to each and every call. It provides weekly training for the firefighters and weekly maintenance on all its equipment, all to improve its rating and of course its response, he said. The residents reap the benefits when the firefighters show up at their house to fight a fire or to extract them from a vehicle after an accident.
“When they call 911 and the dispatcher sets them radios off and them pagers off, them people are not looking for excuses,” Fuller said. “They’re looking for help.”
They also save on their property insurance bills.
Smith said Ranburne’s ISO rating of 7 has saved him approximately $3,000 on property insurance for his store, Ranburne Super Market Hardware.
Cost to local taxpayers
The local departments are funded through a 2 mill property tax and a tax on license plates, Smith said. Each year, the money collected is divvied up between the fire stations evenly, Smith said. It amounts to about $21,000 to $22,000 a year. The department also gets a small amount, never more than $2,000 from the Alabama Forestry Commission, which certifies fire departments, he added.
That’s enough to pay for operations, but not enough to maintain and replace equipment as it wears out, said Patrick Nolen, chief of Turkey Heaven Volunteer Fire Department.
Equipment is expensive. Buying the helmet, gloves, boots, pants, jacket, hood, radio and pager just to outfit each firefighter costs about $3,000, Fuller said. Equipment costs go up from there, he said.
That means the departments have to find funding elsewhere. Turkey Heaven does an average of four fundraisers a year, Patrick Nolen said.
For the last few years, Ranburne has been raising funds by buying old fire engines at auction, fixing them up and selling them. In the past couple of years, it has raised about $100,000, Smith said. But it needs to replace one of its three fire engines. The department’s newest engine is 13 years old, he said. A new fire engine costs between $260,000 and $400,000, Smith said. The department still has a long way to go, he said.
Cane Creek has been relying on fundraisers and grants, Fuller said. The department has been very successful with grants, and much of the equipment it has been able to purchase – equipment which helped bring its ISO rating down – was purchased through grants, he said. But it also needs to replace an old 1969 fire engine and has been unable to get a grant large enough to do that.
Other fundraisers, dinners or selling food, can bring in a few thousand dollars here and there, but that doesn’t go very far in purchasing equipment, Fuller said.
Partnership with the community
The smaller fundraisers are important though, Fuller said. They keep the community involved with the fire department, he said.
“To me it’s a sense of pride and it’s a sense of ownership in the community,” Fuller said. “A community saying, that’s our truck going down the road. Look at it. It’s clean. It’s sharp. It’s something you can be proud of.”
And the firefighters feel a sense of responsibility to the community as well, the firefighters said. Patrick Nolen got into firefighting after watching his older brothers become firefighters. He devotes 20 to 30 hours a week to the department in the hours before and after he works his full-time job at Anniston Army Depot.
“It’s my passion to be able to help people,” Nolen said, echoing the sentiments of nearly every firefighter who commented for this article.
Staff writer Laura Camper 463-2872. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.