All-volunteer fire force: Still feasible?

Most of the county’s six volunteer fire departments have a list of items they need to acquire during the next few years.

On nearly everyone’s is more firefighters.

Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department will be losing five of its 12 volunteers by April. Chief Dallas “Dak” Kelp is planning to leave by the end of the year, citing the demands of the full-time unpaid firefighting job coupled with work and family responsibilities.

Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department recently picked up three volunteers who’d moved into the township, bringing its force up to eight. In recent years, it has had as little as two available for daytime calls.

Hamblen Township VFD has 18 active firefighters on shifts, with about three able to respond during work hours.

Cordry-Sweetwater VFD has 16 active personnel; three are emergency medical technicians only. Chief Mike White said about three men would respond to fire calls at any hour of the day.

Jackson Township VFD is among the better-staffed in the county, with 21 active personnel — mostly retirees.

Fruitdale VFD Chief Kevin Sebastian could not be reached for comment.

Reacting to his volunteers’ exits, Kelp said “the time of counting on the volunteer fire service is done.”

“I’d say it’s getting close,” said Hamblen Chief Arlan Pierce. “That’s why most of your volunteers you see nowadays, a lot of us are old.”

“Every time I try to talk someone into joining, they ask, ‘Well, what am I going to get out of it? How much do you get paid?’ And when I tell them, ‘Nothing,’ they say, ‘Why would I want to do that?’” said Brown County (Nashville) firefighter Shawn Fosnight, who’s in his 20s.

Under pressure

There are 845 fire departments in Indiana, according to the state fire marshal’s office. Only six percent of them are professional. Seventy-six percent are completely volunteer and 18 percent have a mixture of paid staff and volunteers.

Nationally, 69 percent of all firefighters are volunteers. In Brown County, 100 percent of them are.

Recruiting is a challenge everywhere. A fact sheet by the National Volunteer Fire Council illustrates the issues: time demands, training requirements, leadership problems and internal conflict, aging communities and increased call volume are some.

While the volunteer force is shrinking, it is also getting older. Between 1987 and 2013, the number of firefighters older than 50 has nearly doubled in communities with less than 2,500 people nationwide, to 30.5 percent.

Overall, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined by about 12 percent since 1984, the national council reports.

Among the reasons it cites are rigorous training requirements and the vast number of two-income families who do not have time to volunteer.

The training required of volunteers is the same as paid firefighters: at least 24 hours, though some, including Brown County (Nashville), require more in an effort to improve residents’ fire insurance rating.

Van Buren firefighters train for three hours Tuesday and Thursday nights and every Saturday for about three months to become certified to fight a fire.

“Then you still have to get up, go to work, go to school, pay your bills, take care of your family — it starts wearing on you,” Van Buren Fire Chief John Ward said.

And then there are the emergency runs.

At Brown County (Nashville), fire, medical and vehicle accident calls numbered 612 last year — about two per day.

At Van Buren, dispatched 106 times in 2015, volunteers may be called an average of once every three days. Cordry Sweetwater was about the same, at 137.

Jackson falls in the middle: It was dispatched times 221 during the first 11 months. Hamblen was at 214 for the year.

Ward said the average time a volunteer sticks around is three to five years. Pierce said it’s about two.

Jackson Township Chief Glenn Elmore said his station’s volunteer level has stayed fairly consistent for three to four years. They’ve picked up a few firefighters in their 20s and 30s, but the department tends to skew “more senior” — and he’s OK with that.

While younger volunteers are helpful when there’s heavy lifting or quick work to be done, the older ones are always there when he needs them. They’re consistent.

White said most Cordry firefighters have at least 10 years of experience. Recruiting younger volunteers is a goal during his term as chief, to keep it going when the more experienced firefighters can’t anymore.

Ward, 50, said firefighting isn’t always a physical stressor, but it is a mental one, always being on call. “You start adding a lot of stress, that could change your health issues,” he said.

The National Volunteer Fire Council reports that 44 percent of firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2013 were volunteers, and the leading cause of death was a heart attack.

Turning tide?

Nine years ago, then-Indiana Fire Marshal Roger Johnson was quoted in a Brown County Democrat story: “Ten years from now, if you have a viable volunteer force, that will be surprising.

“That’s the projection for many counties of this size,” he said in the Jan. 10, 2007 issue. “I’m not saying that will happen in Brown County, but it’s foreseeable that there just won’t be the personnel pool.”

Current Indiana Fire Marshal Jim Greeson said through a spokesman that he has not seen a trend in volunteer fire departments in Indiana shutting down.

The Indiana Volunteer Fire Association doesn’t have statistics on the health of member departments, but it’s working to get them this year.

IVFA District Chairman Steve Nolan said a survey is going out to all Indiana VFDs this spring, with the goal of helping to retain and recruit volunteers.

“It is generally known across the state that the trend is that volunteers are decreasing somewhat, but it depends on the area,” he said. Nolan’s district includes Brown, Monroe and Lawrence counties and part of Owen.

Nolan and local fire chiefs pointed to job location as a factor in recruitment.

“Younger kids, in order to get a job, they usually have to leave the county to get one that pays anything,” Pierce said. “When they leave, that leaves a void of people helping us, because now, they’ve moved out of the county to work someplace else and you’re back in the same spot.”

Even those who commute aren’t always available when they’re home, Nolan said. “Obviously, the location of where they’re working would come into play. There’s time constraints with family. Kids are doing more activities.”

Even those who work here might not be able to respond during the day.

“In the good olden days, if you worked within the limits of town or the township, when the fire bell went off, some employers were more generous in allowing their employees to leave to go do their fire service, where now, it may not be as easy,” Nolan said.

A few former volunteers leaving the county to work are going to work at paid fire departments. Pierce said he’s lost two of his four recent departures that way.

Any solution?

Last week, Kelp implored the township board and Nashville Town Council to try again to find a way to pay firefighters, supplemented with volunteers.A little more than a year ago, Washington Township tried raising property taxes to pay for three or four firefighters at the Nashville station. The extra cost was about $130 more per year on a $100,000 property. Township taxpayers remonstrated against it, shutting down that effort for at least a year. Town council President Charles “Buzz” King said a meeting will be scheduled soon, and having paid firefighters at the BCVFD is one of the ideas that will be discussed.“These are real problems and we want to solve them. It’s our homes and our lives, too,” King said.

Ward said payment would help retain firefighters, even if was just something to offset what they spend in gas from their own vehicles. He said staffing Van Buren with paid personnel wouldn’t make as much sense as others who see more action.

“I wouldn’t even consider raising an eyebrow if Nashville went to a fully staffed, paid fire department. I think it would awesome for the community, awesome for the county,” Ward said.

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.

In September, the county commissioners were granted control over the district’s future: to do nothing with it, reinstate the district as it was, or remake it into something completely different.

Commissioners President Dave Anderson said the commissioners haven’t discussed the fire district since the court battle ended, and he isn’t eager to wade back into the subject.

Anderson said he’s accountable to the voters, most of whom he doesn’t believe want the fire district as it was. Any discussion, he said, should occur in public, with public input.

“I think it would be good if we had them,” Anderson said about paid personnel, but he said he’s worried about the expense growing and growing.

White, for one, is not ready to give up on the volunteer model. “I will not say the time of volunteerism is done, because I don’t think it will ever get to that point,” he said.

But “putting a sign out front doesn’t cut it,” he said. “I think we have to educate people out there a little more. If you took a poll in Brown County, I think you would find maybe 40 percent, and that may be low, of the people think we have career firefighters.”

Reporter-photographer Suzannah Couch contributed to this story.

Support your local firefighters

SUIT UP: To inquire about what it takes to become a firefighter, contact your local station.

HELP OUT: Fire departments also accept volunteers who do not feel that they can fight fires or provide medical care. These are known as auxiliary or associate members. They can help with fundraising, events, maintenance, bill paying or other areas in which they have special skills.

Brown County (in Nashville): 812-988-4242

Cordry-Sweetwater: 317-933-2224

Fruitdale (in Bean Blossom): 812-988-1696

Hamblen (in Gatesville): 812-988-4063

Jackson (in Helmsburg): 812-988-6201

Van Buren (at Stone Head): 812-988-1594

Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.