Editor’s note: This is the first of four articles delving into the volunteerism decline for Greene County’s fire and rescue departments.
In your worst times you dial 9-1-1 and expect you will get the help you need—whether it’s a fire, rescue or law enforcement emergency. However, volunteer numbers for these first-responders are dwindling rapidly, not only here but across the country.
It wasn’t that long ago, really, that Greene County had no fire or rescue services. Ruckersville Volunteer Fire Company was founded in 1948. Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department’s resurgence came in 1959. In 1968, the Greene County Volunteer Rescue Squad began. In the mid-1980s the Dyke Volunteer Fire Department was created.
The Greene County Rescue Squad now has two paid shifts while the fire departments continue to operate 100% with volunteers, but that’s becoming increasingly harder to do.
Earlier this year, the National Fire Protection Association noted in its 2017 U.S. Fire Department Profile report that there were roughly 682,600 volunteer firefighters in the United States, which is down from 814,850 in 2015 and the 729,000 in 2016.
“The volunteer firefighter numbers for 2016 and 2017 are the lowest recorded levels since the NFPA began the survey in 1983,” stated a news release from the association.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service roughly 2.2 million Virginians contributed 231.7 million hours of volunteer service in 2017 and roughly 34% of Virginians volunteer ranking the commonwealth 22nd among the states. However, only 7.5% volunteer by providing counseling, medical care, fire and EMS or protective services. The largest segment of Virginia’s volunteers—38%—collect, prepare, distribute or serve food.
All four departments in Greene are suffering from this lack of volunteerism.
“I know that one of our greatest challenges is to keep a certain number of people here to keep the operation functioning,” said Ruckersville Volunteer Fire Company President Frank Crocker. “Without the people we can’t function.”
The Greene County Rescue Squad was granted a second paid shift, this time at night Monday-Thursday, for the fiscal year 2020 budget that began July 1 because they were unable to have enough volunteers for all nights. The squad already had one paid shift during the day.
When Rescue Squad Capt. Jack McKeen started volunteering in the late 1990s it was a different situation.
“We had a large calendar on the wall and you’d add your name to a shift to volunteer,” he recalls of his first years volunteering in Madison County. “Some of the biggest fights we’d have would be when someone removed your name from a shift because there were so many volunteers who wanted to help.”
McKeen is paid rescue personnel in Madison County and noted Madison has struggled to staff enough volunteers, too.
“We’re really banging our heads on the wall trying to figure out how we’re going to get people in here,” he said.
In her final report on April 23, Brenda Garton, interim county administrator classified the situation as a “volunteerism crisis” to the Greene County Board of Supervisors.
“Often citizens who move from a city or large jurisdiction to a rural area are not even aware that the firefighter who saves your home or the rescue squad personnel who transport your very sick relative are not paid, but volunteers,” Garton wrote. “Although the Greene County Rescue Squad and our fire departments make considerable effort to recruit, train and retain volunteers, the volunteers available to these organizations over time have steadily declined.”
Why the decline? That’s a difficult question to answer.
“Why has volunteerism become a challenge nationally?” Mark Taylor, new county administrator, asked. “Because people are working and the two-income family is normative. The concept of commuting has become normal or typical and a longer commute is more tolerable to people now than it appears to have been.”
Taylor said there’s been a change in the dynamics of community that’s impacting the lowered volunteerism rates.
The officers at Dyke Volunteer Fire Department agree.
“Look at Dyke Store, if we had a fire the owners would almost shut the doors to help us run the call,” said Mark Shifflett, assistant fire chief.
Dustin Clay, Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department chief, said he thinks pride and ownership play a part in the decline.
“I don’t think people nowadays have the pride in what they do in the same way,” Clay said.
“We were born in this county, took pride on our county,” Shifflett said.
“Every Friday night, come hell or high water, we were at the football game. You go out there now and how many young people are there?”
Monroe Supervisor David Cox, board liaison to the Emergency Services Board, agreed with Clay and Shifflett.
“I think our two chiefs have hit the nail on the head tonight. It’s an ownership and pride thing,” Cox said. “The society has changed so much. We’ve got so many people who have moved into this county who expect not just fire services and rescue services, but they expect all these services they had where they lived at before and they don’t understand that the three fire departments are totally volunteer.”
Crocker said he feels ownership in the community plays a part, as does the time commitment required.
“Folks are here doing it for free and they just don’t have the time like they used to dedicate that,” he said.
The call load factors in, as well. According to 2018 statistics from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, the three fire departments answered 1,061 total calls and the rescue squad answered 2,337.
The county’s population has grown by more than 25% in the past 19 years, with a majority of those residents falling within the Ruckersville volunteer Fire Department’s first due responsibility.
McKeen said on the rescue side people used to be active members until they died, but it doesn’t happen anymore.
The International Fire Chiefs Association noted in November 2018 that its research for the “State of the Volunteer Fire Service Report” backs those statements up.
“The old model of neighbors helping neighbors is all but gone in most places, as many people don’t have strong ties to or even know their neighbors anymore,” the report states. “As the baby boomers retire en masse on the back end, they need to be replaced with young people on the front end. In sheer number there aren’t enough millennials and iGens to replace the baby boomers and worse for us those two younger generations aren’t trending toward the fire service.”
Dyke Volunteer Fire Department member Richard Herring said he sees this as a problem, too.
“Somehow or another we’ve got to get to some people and instill in them again this civic responsibility. I don’t know how we do it,” Herring said.