A First Response Mosaic

Volunteer Firefighter? Career Personnel? Does it Matter?

By Gina Gallucci-White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 03.11.16 – Feature, People & Places

A pair of hands reaches for someone trapped inside a mangled car after a crash. Those same hands will also help to pump back life into an elderly heart attack victim and rescue a family pet trapped inside a burning home. The hands belong to a member of the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Services, and, depending on the circumstances, could belong to a paid, career first-responder or to a volunteer.

The two work well together, according to local fire and rescue officials. “I would go as far to say we have some of the best cooperation between our career personnel and the volunteer members that I have ever experienced in my 40-plus years in the fire service,” says Chief Thomas Owens, chief and director of the county’s Division of Fire and Rescue Services. “When it comes to service delivery to our citizens on the street, the difference between our volunteer and career folks is pretty invisible. When you have that seamless operation out there, it really speaks volumes to the professionalism of both our volunteer and career personnel.”

“When it comes to service delivery to our citizens on the street, the difference between our volunteer and career folks is pretty invisible. —Chief Thomas Owens, chief and director of the county’s Division of Fire and Rescue Services

Chip Jewell, director/volunteer chief of the county’s Division of Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services, agrees the career and volunteers make a very positive, cooperative effort. “We have an integrated chain of command of volunteer and career officers that work together,” he says. “I think we work very, very hard to make it an efficient operation, an effective operation and try to have as much cooperative effort as we can.”

Are there differences between the two? Of course. What group of people with hundreds involved doesn’t? Those disagreements are usually found on the administrative side of the operation when it comes to how they go through their process of developing policies and procedures. “That’s very normal,” Owens says. “It’s very healthy in terms of the very open and inviting way we do business in terms of our policy review and that translates into some very passionate folks in many cases at different kinds of meetings sharing their perspective but, at the end of the day, I think our community can be very proud that all of the folks in leadership positions really focus on getting to the answer that is in the best interest of the citizens that we serve.”

Yet, there are issues the combined system must face.

VOLUNTEERING

While driving through Libertytown in late January, a visitor notices the local fire company’s sign reads, “We need volunteers not more customers.” Was it tongue-in-cheek? Yes. But it’s actually true, not only for the company and Frederick County, but the country, as well. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States has declined by about 12 percent in recent decades. In 1984, there were 897,750 volunteer firefighters, compared to 2013’s total of 786,150, the latest figures available.

So what’s causing people to leave? There are a number of factors. Decades ago, fire companies were one of, if not the, center of activity in towns and cities. Now, most people don’t live within walking distance of their local fire companies. They don’t work near them, either. Add in family commitments like sports practices and church meetings and most people have little, if any, time to give. “We have to be proactive and look at new ways to recruit and new ways to provide that interest for people that want to join the service,” Jewell says.

The county recently completed a four-year, $550,000 federal grant that brought in a recruiter to enlist new members and coordinate a marketing campaign including a new website and advertising throughout the area. Jewell says the grant was successful. “We brought in over 900 individuals,” he says. “Of those, we will have about 400 that have taken some level of fire and EMT training.” Fire and rescue has requested to keep the recruiter position in the next county budget.

“[It] makes no difference whether a volunteer or career person shows up [on a call]. Their training is the same. —Eric Smothers, Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association president

Currently, there are 30 stations in the county, with 22 having career personnel assigned based on need. Of those 22, 18 have career personnel assigned 24/7, with four stations only needing them weekdays Monday through Friday. Officials monitor on a monthly basis what the response times are for volunteer companies and look for trends in deterioration of performance. “Volunteer participation runs a normal course of peaks and valleys,” Owens says. “… We really look for the trend. On any given month, the fact that volunteer participation is up or down doesn’t alarm us as much as if we start to see a trend in that decline and when we see a trend in that decline. That’s when we have to look at what the county may have to do to provide that supplemental staffing in that station with additional career personnel.”

While recruitment has gone fairly well over the past several years, retention is a big issue, according to fire officials. The reasons vary for losing volunteers, but new life and/or job commitments usually tops the list.

Nonetheless, the county does still have a prominent volunteer population, according to Eric Smothers, Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association president. “[It] makes no difference whether a volunteer or career person shows up [on a call]. Their training is the same. You are going to get the exact same medical care. It doesn’t really matter whether you are career or volunteer, we are going to provide the best service that we can for the citizens of Frederick County.”

TRAINING

Do you have around six months to give to train for a job you won’t get paid for? Not many people do, and that’s a problem. Training is free but it costs lots of time. To even step foot on an ambulance as an EMT, you’ll need more than 100 hours of training. Want to fight fires too? Add more training hours.

About two years ago, the state added the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians certification. This test is scenario-based, not the multiple-choice exam local recruits were used to and prepared for when exam time came around. “It was very different from what we have had previously and because of that, it is requiring a lot more studying time, a lot more mentoring,” Jewell says. “The EMT program now, by the time you are totally done with your self-study course and your mentoring, it is well over 200 hours. It’s much more in-depth. It’s a lot more time commitment and, quite honestly, it is a pretty difficult course.”

Fire officials also noted the lack of testing centers during the first year of the new requirements. Smothers says locals had to drive to Virginia, West Virginia and New Jersey in order to test. Jewell says the sites were not just for EMT testing; people going for various other licenses like insurance or plumbing were also using the test centers. “The transition to the National Registry program has been difficult,” Jewell says. “The first year we did it, there were many, many issues statewide and over 700 people that took EMT did not get certified as a National Registry EMT. … It did affect people in Frederick County. We did have several people that were unable to test, or did not test or unable to pass the test that were volunteers that could be serving today, but because of not being able to get certified with the National Registry they cannot function as an EMT.”

Local officials are working with state partners like the Maryland State Firemen’s Association and the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems to look at all the variables including examining the curriculum to make adjustments. “We have slowly started building additional testing sites so that helps providers tremendously,” Smothers says. “We are starting to see where that is starting to be successful. We are hoping that continues.” Those that already had EMT certification prior to the addition of the National Registry requirement did not need to retake the test.

Those who are hired as career personnel go through a full-time, five-and-a-half-month recruit training academy. “It is a very intense process that puts our recruit candidates through all of the basic technical training and certifications that they need under both the state of Maryland and Frederick County requirements to move into field service,” Owens says. “When it comes to the training and certification requirements for firefighters and EMTs, there is no difference. Our volunteers get their training in a different way. Instead of an intense five-and-a-half-month academy, our volunteers come through their training to achieve the same certifications that the career people have but they do it on a schedule that takes them longer because it is typically being done on evenings and weekends.”

Once you achieve certification, don’t think the studying is over. Both volunteers and career personnel must maintain their status by completing additional training to maintain their certification.

FUNDRAISING

Out of the 30 stations in the county, 26 are independent volunteer fire companies. In order to answer calls for service with proper equipment, the companies need the public’s help. Fundraising is a critical aspect of operations for local fire companies. “This equipment is not inexpensive,” Smothers says. “We certainly are not going out and buying flashy stuff just to say we have it. …We are purchasing only what we need.”

Some of the vehicles cost hundreds of thousands of dollars brand new, not to mention the cost of the life saving equipment onboard. “We are very fortunate,” Jewell says. “We have a lot of companies that have very active fundraising events and the majority of the equipment is still owned and purchased by the individual volunteer fire companies in Frederick County, which I think is a real tribute.”

“It certainly saves the taxpayers money when departments can go out independently and buy stuff, as opposed to the county government buying it,” —Eric Smothers

Local companies put on a wide variety of events all year round, including carnivals, bingos and pancake breakfasts to earn money. They also do annual door-to-door drives to ask for donations. “It certainly saves the taxpayers money when departments can go out independently and buy stuff, as opposed to the county government buying it,” Smothers says. “That is a huge cost savings to Frederick County taxpayers. We are very mindful of every dollar that we get. We try to go out and look for as many grants as we can to help supplement that.” (The county overlays another level of funding to each company based on a formula that includes annual calls for service, and the cost for owning and maintaining equipment and stations.)

According to National Volunteer Fire Council, the time donated by volunteers annually saves localities nationwide an estimated $139 billion. Whether such savings is sustainable rests on the sole factor of being able to attract and keep volunteers. “We would love to have [more residents] come out and be a part of that,” Smothers says.