SURRY COUNTY, N.C. -- The extreme need for volunteer firefighters in our state remains.
"In some of our rural areas [of the state] we've had the problem of not enough volunteers and the county or nearby city having to take over those nearby volunteers," said Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, who visited fire departments throughout the county Monday driving home the need. "Volunteers make up the majority of our fire departments in North Carolina."
Behind the shortage
Part of the reason for the shortage is that many volunteer firefighters were rural farmers who were able to answer the call. There are not as many of those people anymore. Also, people living in rural areas commute to the city for work now and employers rarely allow people to leave their job to fight a fire like they did a few decades ago. Volunteers are also required to have the same training as paid firefighters.
"When it comes to the training that is required of you, the call volume that we run, it just takes a lot of time away from your family," said Franklin Community VFD Fire Chief Johnny Hiatt. "A lot of people don't want to give that nowadays."
Hiatt is also a volunteer fire chief of the department that answered more than 700 calls last year. They now have one paid firefighter who is staffed Monday-Friday to serve more than 8,000 people including four schools.
"We put that person on to where we know the truck is out the door in about 30 seconds instead of 6-10 minutes from [a volunteer's] work."
The one paid firefighter gets the truck on the scene with hopes that volunteers will show up to help. Fire departments offer junior firefighter programs and training to help get younger people interested in volunteering.
Covering the cost
The more staff and volunteers a local department has helps keep a fire departments ratings low, which is a good thing. The lower the rating the lower a homeowner’s insurance rate will be in a certain fire district.
"It can keep the rates lower," said Hiatt, who along with other volunteer departments asked Surry County Commissioners for a slight fire tax increase last year to help pay for more paid firefighters. Several estimates from departments and insurance companies said the slight tax increase would have paid for itself
Commissioners said no to the full request leaving some departments unable to hire a paid firefighter.