The Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department is at a crossroads.
Three firefighters quit last week and two more will leave by April, said Chief Dallas “Dak” Kelp.
A minimum of five firefighters are needed to safely extinguish a building fire — two inside, two outside ready to provide backup and one incident commander who also runs the truck, Kelp said.
Until its roster is rebuilt, the BCVFD will have to rely more heavily on mutual aid, Kelp said. Depending on where the emergency is, that could come from Jackson Township, Fruitdale’s station in Bean Blossom, Hamblen Township’s station in Gatesville or Van Buren Township — all of which are served by volunteers.
At best, the nearest mutual aid is 10 minutes away.
“It’s all about calculated risk. Are the people being protected? Yeah. … But, unfortunately, most of the other the departments aren’t a whole lot better off than we are. Instead of calling one department now, you may have to call two or three,” Kelp said.
A big (free) job
Kelp cited personality issues, stress and the physical demand of the job as some of the reasons for the departures.The BCVFD covers Nashville and Washington township. That area includes portions of two state highways, the state park and part of Yellowwood State Forest, as well as several apartment buildings and the nursing home.The volume of medical, vehicle accident and fire calls the BCVFD is dispatched to set a new record last year — more than 600, an average of more than two per day.
By Kelp’s calculation, the six firefighters he could count on consistently to respond donated 3,000 hours each last year, or 76.5 40-hour work weeks for no pay.
“As volunteers, we have to manage the fire department, our families and our jobs,” he said.
“Two of the ones who have left are definitely within the top five of making runs. One of them was No. 1 or No. 2 last year.”
Assistant Steve Shaner is one who is leaving in April after serving for 25 years. That’s a decision Kelp, a 30-year firefighter himself, expected and understands.
“He’s along the lines of Kurt Young and Steve Gore. I could name a whole list of the older guys who put their time and paid their dues. They’re done. I really can’t hold it against him.”
The other four leaving have served an average of four years, Kelp said. In that time, they’ve received firefighting training and certification that enables them to work as a paid firefighter.
Paid firefighters are something Kelp has been advocating for his own department for 15 years, he said.
He doesn’t know if they’ll have enough help to man the fish fry tent downtown this fall, and that’s the department’s major fundraiser.
“Are we going to be able to cover all of the (emergency) runs? I highly doubt it,” Kelp said.
Among the six volunteers left, one has been serving for four or five years, Kelp said. Another has been with this department for about a year but had seven to eight years of other firefighting experience. Their availability to respond is hit-or-miss because of their work schedule, Kelp said.The other volunteers have been there for less than two years.“I don’t know of a volunteer fire department that has more active firefighters than they know what to do with,” Kelp said.
Kelp had planned to leave at the end of 2015, but he said he’s going to fulfill the department’s current fire service contract with the town until it expires Dec. 31. He is unsure what his future holds.
“There are very few days that I don’t answer phone calls or texts about the fire department. It’s a full-time job, it really is. People don’t understand that.”
“To keep people on here as a volunteer, I don’t think there’s any way to do it,” he said.
In 2014, Washington Township attempted a tax increase to pay for three or four firefighters at the Nashville station, but taxpayers remonstrated against it.
A Brown County Fire Protection District, established in 2007, included a funding mechanism which could have been used for staffing. But it was never fully implemented because of constant court battles, and only recently have the county commissioners been granted control over its future.
Volunteer shortages are not just a problem here, it’s nationwide, Kelp said.
“The time of counting on the volunteer fire service is done,” he said.
Washington Township Trustee Brandon Magner said the township is still being served by the Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department.Town council President Charles “Buzz” King said the same thing about the town.King’s father was one of the original Nashville volunteer firefighters. He said the town council will not let the doors to the department close.
“There is something that would be done. We’re not going to let houses burn down,” King said.
“But it is a big problem.”
Kelp has come to the town council several times asking for a way to support paid firefighters.
King said he doesn’t know what that would be yet. For now, he believes finding more volunteers will lessen the burden on the ones who remain.
“I think that even for the fish fry, if people, regular citizens, would volunteer to work there. … That’d relieve the burden on those that are volunteer firemen,” he said.
This week, the Washington Township Advisory Board is scheduled to vote on taking out a loan for a new fire truck for this department.
“If we drop, really, any more people, we’re not going to vote on the truck,” Magner said, “because at that point, if we don’t have people, it doesn’t make sense to commit that sort of money to buy a new truck.”