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Firefighters need support / April 10, 2014

Dear Viewpoint:

It’s 2:30 AM on any given morning. You wake up and know something isn’t right. Insert your own emergency story here. It can be that you are having severe chest pain. Maybe your child is having breathing problems. Maybe the dog is going crazy and you smell smoke. Regardless of the story, you grab your phone and call 911. What happens next?

If your emergency is medical in nature, the Halifax County 911 center dispatches both your local fire department for their EMTs, First Responders and the Halifax County Rescue Squad. As you know, your local volunteer fire department is made up of your neighbors. We can jump out of bed, get off the tractor, etc., drive to the station, get a truck full of medical equipment and then get to your home normally long before the Halifax County Rescue Squad gets there. This precious time between when your local fire department arrives, and you are waiting on the transport agency, can make the difference in life or death in many situations.

If your emergency is fire related, the Halifax County 911 center dispatches the closest fire department to your home. If your fire emergency involves a structure (your house, shed, garage, etc.) then the closest two fire departments are dispatched immediately.

Now let’s assume that for whatever your emergency is, you live in one of the all volunteer fire department districts in Halifax County. This happens to be most of them by the way. You wait for several minutes and no one has shown up. You start to wonder if anyone is coming. You and your family are outside now and you can see flames in your house, or your child’s breathing is getting worse. Maybe it’s your chest pain that is worse. Whatever the emergency, is someone on the way to help? Hopefully the answer is YES. Your neighbors that serve your community by volunteering in their local fire departments are doing everything possible to get there. This assumes of course that the few volunteers each department has left are available to even run the call. I say “has left” because the number of active volunteers for your local fire departments is dwindling. Why is this happening? Time commitment and money are the top reasons. What do time commitment and money have to do with dwindling volunteers? To answer this question, let’s look at what your local volunteer fire fighter goes through.

Let’s make another assumption. Imagine that you are now one of the few that want to serve your community by becoming a volunteer fire fighter. You want to run into a burning building. You want to become an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) and help to save lives. How do you go about it? You approach your local volunteer fire department and submit an application. After a background check is done, you are most likely voted in. You sign up for an EMT class and you realize that the 130 hours or so of training is really taking quite a bit more time than you expected. You finally make it through the class and then you want to become a fire fighter. You sign up for Firefighter I and II and then realize the 180 hours or so of this training takes up even more time. You are leaving your family at home so you can be trained to help others. Trust me, it’s a wonderful feeling when you do get to help your neighbors and it makes all the initial class time worth it. But wait, there is much more to it than this.

Now you find out that every week, you must attend meetings at the fire department. You must take hour after hour of recertification classes each year. Many of your weekends are taken up by doing this. You want to drive a fire truck? That’s another certification you need. You start running calls and you have ran 8 of them this week which has taken 12 more of your hours you planned to spend doing things around the house. You are not sure exactly why, but the feeling you get when you are helping others outweighs the time you are spending doing it. For most people, it even outweighs you having to maintain your training and the money you are spending out of your own pocket to do all of this. But wait, there is still way more to this story.

You need firefighting equipment to do your job. You need lifesaving equipment to do your job too. You need a radio to communicate. But wait, we haven’t even thought about a fire truck or a building to park it in. Where will all this money come from? We need gas in the trucks, insurance, electricity, etc. How can we do this? Let’s end all of the assumptions here and look at the facts.

Each of the volunteer fire departments in Halifax County gets approximately $35,000 per year from the county budget. Sounds like a decent amount of money. That is until you pay the insurance on the station and trucks. That takes almost half of what the county just gave you. Then you add in utilities, gas for the trucks, building and truck maintenance, etc. and you now have $0 left to spend. In fact, you are now in the hole. We need a new truck, but there is no money. We need new equipment, new radios, EMS supplies, but there is no money. That is until donations from the community come in. We couldn’t begin to survive without these donations, but even with them, we still can’t make it. Thus your local fire department has fundraisers. Many of them have fundraisers every month, just to be able to keep the doors open.

Now back to my comment above about dwindling numbers due to time commitment and money. You found it in your heart to join your local fire department to help your community. You took (and continue to take) so much of your time away from family and other commitments just to get training and recertification hours. You attend the required weekly meetings. You are now running calls. Except for satisfaction in helping your neighbors, there is no compensation for your time and effort. Then you find out that unless you can raise more money by having fundraisers, it was done in vain. Your station will have to close the doors anyway if there is no more money. So here you go with even more time spent away from family. Much more time in many cases, just to try and raise enough money to keep the doors open.

I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now. I’ve watched membership numbers drastically fall over that time period. I’ve also watched the required training hours dramatically increase during this time as well (that is a good thing – safety is a priority). What I have never seen in my years of fire department experience however, is the amount of money it now takes to keep the station running. It takes one enormous commitment to become a volunteer fire department member nowadays. Each member is spending countless hours in trainings, meetings, and running calls. Not to mention, the money out of their own pockets to put gas in their vehicles to do all of this work. And it’s all still free – to those that need the services. That’s fine in my opinion, it’s what I signed up for almost 30 years ago. What I didn’t sign up for however was to have to spend what few hours I have left in a month trying to raise money for our community volunteer fire department in order to keep the doors open. It’s just too much to handle. Now it appears that membership in some departments is so low, even getting enough help to hold a fundraiser is becoming an issue. It takes a ton of work to put on these fundraisers. It also takes quite a few dedicated people. When you don’t have the people to do this, it’s impossible. We, your local VOLUNTEER fire departments, are on a very dangerous downward spiral. It is an issue that continues to worsen each year. This is not an issue being seen at any particular volunteer fire department. Most, if not all of our stations are having this same issue.

Something needs to change. You can only expect so much from people, especially people who are providing these type of services at no cost to the recipient. This is not a new issue, but one that has been ongoing for some time now. It’s past time to take a very serious look at this issue and to come up with some ideas to help fix it. I challenge the Halifax County Board of Supervisors to help resolve this problem. Look at your county budget. The monies given to your volunteer fire departments has remained the same for years. No one really wants to see tax rates go up, and maybe that is not the answer. Something needs to be done, however, and it needs to happen rather quickly. When you have a medical or fire emergency, everyone expects help when they dial 911. With the number of volunteers providing this help dwindling like it continues to do, it’s getting harder and harder to even keep the doors open, much less to provide this help. What happens when no one comes? That’s a question none of us Halifax County citizens want to risk finding out the answer to. We don’t want to find out, and we don’t deserve to. I’m sure most, if not all, of my brothers and sisters providing this all volunteer service in Halifax County will agree. We will make every effort to find a way to continue, but we must have a better means for financial support from our local government. Else, I really don’t want to even think about what happens next.

Sincerely, Tim Boelte

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