The unanswered call: Volunteer firefighters - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

The unanswered call: Volunteer firefighters


The majority of counties and small towns across Georgia and South Carolina rely heavily on volunteers to man fire departments. 

Budgets simply don’t allow most communities the luxury of fire houses with fully paid staffs.

Finding those volunteers was as simple as sending a message to the local high school or putting an ad in the paper, 20 or 30 years ago. Now, tens of thousands of homes and businesses are in jeopardy of burning to the ground because there aren’t enough firefighters to dowse the flames.

We assume fire crews are doing everything they can to save our home when the call goes out.  What you may not know, is that call is reaching fewer and fewer fire crews every year. 

“We don’t have any way of recruiting more and getting more and when we respond to calls we’re lacking on manpower,” said Bryan County Fire Chief Freddy Howell.

That lack of manpower wouldn’t exist if every firefighter responding to your emergency was a paid county employee.  They’re not. In some communities, better than 80 percent are volunteers.  Risking their time and their lives out of the goodness of their hearts.  Well, that goodness isn’t exactly overflowing with this generation.

“You’re exactly right,” agreed Howell.  “And I don’t think people want to give back to the community like they once did.  They’re not part of the community, they don’t work and live at the same community.  Most of the people work here but they live somewhere else.”

The very night before WTOC’s David Klugh spoke with Chief Howell, the call came in of a historic home in Ellabell on fire and burning fast.  By the time crews could gather, arrive, and set up, the home was gone.

The great, great grandkids of the original owner were in the middle of restoring it when the fire struck. 

WTOC’S Klugh asked the chief how this disaster might have turned out different if he had been flush with volunteers.  

“Well, I think that we could have established a water supply a lot quicker, and laid more hose out and gotten to it before this much damage.  And gotten to it a lot quicker and stopped the fire from progressing this far,” said Howell.

That’s an amazing admission from the man in charge of protecting your property.  But when you consider what he and other fire chiefs in the area are up against, you begin to understand.

Every year the chief holds what he calls the “Citizens Emergency Services Academy”, a chance for everyone to get up close and personal with the fire services offered.

“We had fliers, we had pamphlets, and we put them all up in the businesses and all.  We had zero interest two years in a row from citizens.   So, if we can’t get the citizens to care about emergency services in their community, how can we get them to be a volunteer,” said Howell.

And it’s not just counties but cities that are having a heck of a time finding volunteers. Richmond Hill for example, has seen a boost in population and home construction over the last two years of some 40 percent. Yet finding the volunteer firefighters to provide that protection has never been more difficult.

“I’m putting my firefighters in danger operating in such small numbers,” says Richmond Hill Fire Chief Ralph Catlett.  “We’re killing ourselves to save property and lives but we’re also putting our firefighters at a higher risk.”

And Chief Catlett is one of the lucky ones.  Only 50 percent of his force is volunteer.  He’s aiming for one day creating an all-paid department, because he’s seen the trends. 

Twenty years ago, there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the U.S.  Today, there are fewer than 75,000.  And every volunteer must complete the same continuing education and training as those who are paid.  It’s reassuring to know there are some who are not discouraged.

George Perez has been a volunteer firefighter for decades, “Going out here and helping the community and helping total strangers, it’s the best feeling you could ever have.”

Another volunteer, Victoria Pape said people just don’t want to commit to anything anymore.  “You really have to have a heart to want to volunteer and to make a difference in the community.  I think we’ve lost that.” 

Truth is, there probably isn’t a fire chief in the nation who wouldn’t love to have an entire force of paid firefighters.  The economics of it will probably never make that feasible. In the meantime, Chief Howell and Chief Catlett will always show up at your next emergency, just as soon as they can, with the best crew they can pull together.

“When it comes to a fire, a house fire, it doesn’t differentiate between a paid or volunteer firefighter,” said Catlett. “I mean once they’re in the turnout gear, they all look the same.”

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