Volunteer fire departments struggle to stay staffed

Above, volunteers from Dyke Fire Company show the equipment necessary to students at Nathanael Greene Primary.

Editor’s note: This is the second of four articles delving into the volunteerism decline for Greene County’s fire and rescue departments.

Imagine smoke filling your house, after getting everyone out safely what do you do next? Most people will call 911 to have fire service dispatched to their homes. However, what happens if there isn’t a local fire service to dispatch? 

Those who think that’s far-fetched should know there is no state code that requires a locality to fund a fire service, noted Greene County Administrator Mark Taylor.

“We’re not mandated to provide fire service, but we’re certainly aware of the service that’s been provided, the community expectancy, which is reasonable, for such support and we would be uncaring if we didn’t respond to the fire companies’ needs,” he said.

Greene County is served by three all-volunteer fire departments: Ruckersville Volunteer Fire Company; Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department; and Dyke Volunteer Fire Department. In 2016 there were 801 calls for fire service and in 2018 there were 1,061, according to information from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office who operates the E911 center. All three fire departments get equal monies from the county’s budget, though growth is centered along U.S. Route 29 in Ruckersville, which can be frustrating to the departments.

“Our call volume is huge and we’re working with a budget that’s exactly the same as Dyke,” said Ruckersville Volunteer Fire Company President Frank Crocker. “I’m a realist when it comes to funding all three companies. Dyke’s needs are completely different than our needs. The call volume is here. It’s been a frustration of mine for awhile. It’s a sensitive subject—money always is.”

To fully staff one paid fire department it would cost roughly the county $1 million—and that’s only benefits and salary, no equipment or apparatus.

During the fiscal year 2020 budget cycle it was noted that one penny added to the real estate tax rate adds about $200,000 to the general fund. To fully staff three fire departments, Greene would need to add 15 cents onto the current 82 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value.

“One of the things special about Greene County is that we are served by three volunteer fire companies and have no paid firefighting staff. I’m not sure what the level of community awareness of that reality,” Taylor said. “We have every practical reason to support the volunteers.”

Emergency Services Manager Melissa Meador said that while the rescue squad needs paid staffing to meet the needs she’s not sure the firefighting side is there yet. Taylor agreed.

“Historically our community has been served and served well for many, many years by all-volunteer fire companies,” Taylor said. “When the companies tell us they need or want or cannot continue without our … whatever—whether it’s money, people, help, oversight, support—we have every reason to do our best.”

All three departments said that while they get some funding from the county, it’s not enough to fund everything—from a $1 million ladder truck for Ruckersville to a new tanker for Stanardsville to instruction for Dyke. It all adds up.

“The volunteers’ service to our community is really a blessing to us. It is a big savings to us. Their success is our success. We are very much in this together,” Taylor said.

Ruckersville

“It’s not like it used to be in the 1980s,” said Crocker, who has been a volunteer with the company for 19 years. “We were probably pushing 50-60 members between active firefighters and the fundraising side—like your ladies’ auxiliary, which really doesn’t exist anymore.”

Crocker said with the amount of fundraising the firefighters have to do will wear them out, on top of the increased call requests.

“Before you were running a handful of calls a week and now you’re running a handful of calls a day,” Crocker said. “Everyone nowadays have a job or even two and both people in a relationship have one or even two jobs. To put not only that burden on the backs of the firefighters but then you add the fundraising aspect and keeping up with things around the firehouse it’s a huge time commitment. The training is another whole time commitment level above that. You’re putting so much on the backs of the firefighters.”

Crocker, who grew up in Greene County and is a professional firefighter in another locality, said he volunteers because he likes to help people.

“To be able to make a difference in somebody’s life in their worst time is important to me,” he said. “This is a 24-hour business. We need bodies. We need help.”

The company is at 50 Sassafras Lane, Ruckersville. The non-emergency number is (434) 985-7383. In an emergency dial 911.

Stanardsville

The Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department does a lot of fundraising, said Chief Dustin Clay.

“The same people running the class are doing the fundraising and it burns people out quick,” he said. “Our expenses are constantly going up because we have to buy more equipment, so we have to do more fundraising.”

Clay said he’s taken days off from work to make sure there was someone who could run calls at his fire house because of vacations.

He said one thing he’s noticed over the years is the appearance of lack of respect because “we’re just volunteers.”

“I’m a paid fireman somewhere else, yes, but here I stay true to my volunteering,” he said. “I remember where I came from.”

While the equipment gets more expensive, Clay said it’s more about needing the people to fight the fires because they have the equipment.

Guys will come home from shift work, go straight to the breakfasts and a lot of us take days off from work

Clay said he’d like to see more young people joining, too.

“You’re happy because 10 join but you have that 20 percent rule—only two are going to stay and be productive,” he said.

There are jobs at the firehouse to do that don’t involve going into a fire, that would take some of the stress from the firefighters, including cutting the grass, cleaning the firehouse and fundraising.

For those who like a bit of adrenaline, Clay said becoming a volunteer firefighter is the way to go.

“It’s not like we’re a boring county,” Clay said. “There’s plenty to do. We send people to cool classes—like swift water rescue. We have the exciting stuff.”

The department is at 275 Celt Road in Stanardsville. The non-emergency phone number is (434) 985-4638. In an emergency, call 911.

Dyke

Dyke Volunteer Fire Department began when there was a house fire on Flattop Mountain.

“They felt maybe it could have been saved if we had a fire house closer,” said Assistant Chief Mark Shifflett.

While the department doesn’t do as much fundraising as the others, they do have the same issues with getting bodies in their trucks.

Several people would like to see rescue vehicles at the site, but Shifflett said he doesn’t know how to make that work.

“We have people who are EMTs who are chomping at the bit for us to start, but that’ll be more calls and you still don’t have enough people to run,” he said.

Shifflett said his department has seen a large shortage.

“We have very little interest of young people coming in at all,” Shifflett said. “I think the young people would rather have a computer or game and they don’t want to deal with this. But we’re part of this community.”

Shifflett noted that he cannot imagine trying to function as a volunteer department without the funding the county gives the departments.

“We’d be working fundraisers all the time,” he said. “We hear from other counties that we take classes with that their county gives them $10,000. With $10,000 I could buy two air packs—maybe.”

The department is at 9144 Dyke Road, Dyke. The non-emergency number is (434) 985-3711.

***

Clay said all departments want the community to know that the firefighters showing up at their doors are all volunteers.

“We need people. I’m all quality over quantity. I want those willing to do the work and stick around,” he said. “I don’t want to ever see paid, but I know it’ll come at some point.”

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