SNOW HILL – “It’s almost like the volunteer fireman is becoming an endangered species.”
As National Fire Prevention Week begins Sunday, Worcester County Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw took the opportunity this week to bring attention to the dwindling number of volunteers supporting the fire service. All of the county’s 10 volunteer fire companies are struggling to hang on to their members.
“Recruitment is one thing, retaining them beyond three to five years is a whole other avenue,” Worcester County Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon said.
The Worcester County Commissioners issued a proclamation Tuesday in recognition of National Fire Prevention Week Oct. 9-15. Along with the “Don’t Wait, Check the Date” smoke detector message being pushed, the commissioners shared concerns about the decline in volunteer firefighters.
“Each fire department is now suffering from a lack of membership because of the amount of time it takes,” Lockfaw said.
Lockfaw, who has been a member of the Pocomoke City Volunteer Fire Company since 1972, said his department was short 15 people.
“It really is becoming critical in each community,” he said.
Countywide, there are roughly 535 volunteer firefighters. That number fluctuates, however, and they aren’t all active. That’s evident any time there’s a daytime fire.
McMahon pointed to Monday’s apartment fire in Snow Hill as an example. It took five fire companies to put out the early afternoon fire.
“One of the problems we have during the daytime is the manpower because our fire service is volunteer,” McMahon said.
The volunteers these companies do have, he explained, are typically at work during the day. They can’t necessarily leave to respond to a fire, particularly as times have changed. A Pocomoke firefighter who works in Salisbury, he said, is probably not going to answer the call.
“Years ago people lived and worked in the community they resided in,” McMahon said.
The other issue facing fire departments is recruitment. For the first time in six years, Worcester Technical High School didn’t offer its emergency services program when school started in September.
“This is the first time in six years we haven’t had the cadet base to get that class started,” McMahon said, adding that he did believe there would be enough interest to offer the class the second half of the school year.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said he’d noticed the declining number of teenagers involved as cadets and pointed out that in the past many volunteers had gotten their start that way.
“It seems to be the trend is there’s less and less cadets,” he said.
Those who don’t start their firefighting education as teenagers in the program offered at Worcester Tech face a challenge, as it takes about 200 hours of training to become a firefighter.
“The training requirements are stringent,” McMahon said, adding that a volunteer firefighter spent more time training than he or she would spend fighting fires.
Lockfaw said he knew it was hard for people to make that kind of commitment and was grateful for the volunteers the county had.
“It becomes very difficult to donate that kind of time to volunteer service,” he said.
In spite of the decline in membership the county’s fire departments are dealing with, they’ll all be visiting area schools during National Fire Prevention Week. Throughout the year, they also meet with the county’s civic groups to talk about fire safety.
“We take it very seriously,” McMahon said.
Lockfaw agreed and said he hoped the community was aware of the sacrifices made by volunteer firefighters.
“Every time you see one of these people in the fire service thank them for what they do.”