Shortage of volunteer firefighters continues

LAWRENCE COUNTY, AR (KAIT) - Across America, volunteer fire departments are facing a shortage of volunteers. I visited with two departments here in Region 8 to see if they are feeling the pinch.

"The thing about volunteers is that they are regular citizens, they have 9 - 5 jobs or what have you. They just set aside time for their communities to volunteer." said Hoxie Fire Chief Mark Vanbrook, who is also the only paid employee of his department. Luckily for him, the full racks of turnouts represent active volunteers.

Vanbrook says the applications come and go. "Some month we'll be overloaded with applicants and applications. Other months, nothing. Right now we're at an elevated capacity with our roster and we hope to stay that way."

Many firefighters work at jobs that may not allow them to just leave at a moment's notice.

"Mutual Aid" between departments is now not a luxury but a necessity. Black Rock Fire Chief Pat Roby says it expands a small departments capabilities to handle fires easier.

Roby, "Most time it's just water shuttle sometimes they need manpower too. Kind of expands your department too. You have a fire you got somebody else to depend on too."

Vanbrook says a lot of times you need what another department has to offer. "Especially in this day and age when fire departments don't just put out fires." Vanbrook says. "We rely heavily on our brothers and sisters from other towns and cities." Vanbrook says for auto accidents, Walnut Ridge is automatically called out to assist them because of the extraction equipment they carry.

Large fires may call in 4 or 5 departments to get enough water on the fire or enough fire firefighters to make sure no one gets to overstress.

Black Rock has 23 firefighters on it's current roster, a fire call during the day will call in about 6. Their mutual aid includes, Embolden, Portia, Walnut Ridge and Hoxie. Hoxie has mutual aid agreements with all 13 departments in the county. Their biggest asset is a huge green water tanker.

Looking to the future Chief Vanbrook says volunteer departments are dwindling, a lot has to do with lack of volunteerism and money.

"Grant money funds to assist fire departments is dwindling excruciatingly fast." Vanbrook says. Many small departments are now looking at charging dues to offset costs.

Equipment costs are soaring, fuel is soaring and people aren't lining up to fight fires.

Vanbrook, "It's becoming very difficult for all of us to maintain our level of excellence and expertise."

There are some costs with becoming a volunteer fire fighter, you may have to pay for some training and of course what gas you may use going to the station or to a fire.

But the rewards...are beyond price.

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