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home : news : news July 18, 2019

7/12/2019 12:11:00 AM
Hard To Plan For Growth, Other Unknowns For VFD's
Members of the Pumpkin Center VFD work the scene of a house fire.
(Contributed Photos)

Members of the Pumpkin Center VFD
work the scene of a house fire.

(Contributed Photos)

(Top) This tanker is part of the Union Volunteer Fire Department’s fleet. 
(Bottom) The South Fork VFD celebrated its golden anniversary in 2015.

(Top) This tanker is part of the Union
Volunteer Fire Department’s fleet. 

(Bottom) The South Fork VFD celebrated
its golden anniversary in 2015.

Previous Articles In Our Five Part
Series On The Firefighter Shortage

  • June 12, 2019 - Urgency For Volunteer Firefighters Reaches Critical State by Chief James Flynn CLICK HERE
  • June 28, 2019 - National Volunteer Firefighter Shortage Hits Home by Thomas Lark CLICK HERE 
  • July 1, 2019 - Ongoing Growth, Lack Of Volunteers Face Firefighters by Thomas Lark CLICK HERE 
  • July 8, 2019 - Fire Departments Seek Personnel, Facilities, More by Thomas Lark CLICK HERE

Thomas Lark
Staff Writer

EDITOR’S NOTE: We here present the fifth and final installment in a series on local fire departments and the ongoing shortage of firefighters.

LINCOLNTON, N.C.––Who can say what the future holds?

It is by definition unknown. And so far, no one has invented a reliable crystal ball to help out.

Probably America’s firefighters wish they had such a device amongst all their equipment and apparatuses. Given the nationwide shortage of firefighters, a bit of certainty would be reassuring.

Chief Jackie Smith of the South Fork Volunteer Fire Department, Chief Shaun Drum of the Ore Bank Pumpkin Center VFD and Chief Jeremy Gilbert of the Union VFD in Vale all recently told The Herald more about their departments’ collective situation in the light of this ongoing shortage. 

“The volunteer fire service is hurting because of the lack of volunteers and the number of calls that volunteers are expected to answer and the training requirements they’re expected to fulfill,” said Gilbert. “The call volume is increasing because of fire departments responding to more medical calls without any additional funding from the County. Fire departments have had to spend funding to purchase equipment to respond to medical calls and then, once said equipment is used, the EMS replaces it. But for manpower, there is no funding when fire departments provide routine or emergency support when requested by EMS.”

The Union VFD is comprised of 14 part-time and 22 volunteer staffers. Gilbert said he’d like to have six more firefighters to fill three part-time positions, Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-6 p.m., with split shifts including 6 a.m.-2 p.m., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. and 10 p.m.-6 a.m. Gilbert added that 13 more volunteers would be good.

“We can support 35,” he said.

Gilbert continued that Union’s fire district is 37 square miles. His firefighters’ daily duties include checking and cleaning the apparatuses, equipment and stations to ensure proper readiness; running calls, from routine service to emergency calls; and participating in various public events, including assisting Union Elementary School with various programs.

So how do fire departments plan for residential and commercial growth? And what changes will they make as their districts grow?

“We have added two new stations and closed our original station to provide adequate coverage,” said Gilbert. “Our plan is to continue to add personnel until we can have staffing 24 hours a day, with volunteers assisting.” 

South Fork
The South Fork VFD celebrated 50 years of service, back in 2015.

Smith said his department has 11 part-time and 27 volunteer staffers, responsible for a fire district of 12 square miles. Smith added that he’d like to have more personnel.

“Ten would be nice,” he said.

Smith continued that both the part-timers and volunteers are responsible for maintaining hydrants and testing hoses; assuring the readiness of all equipment and apparatuses; and answering all calls for service.

“It is difficult to plan for this,” he said of change and growth within his fire district. “Often it happens, and we stay on top of our pre-plans and adjust as needed.” 

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Pumpkin Center
Drum said his department is comprised of three full-time, 11 part-time and 22 volunteer staffers, handling a fire district of 24.7 square miles.

“We have a limit of 40 members and five juniors,” he said. “However, we are required to have 28 members to operate as a fire department with two stations: a main and a substation. So we meet that standard. We currently have three juniors included in the 36. It is hard to say how many we actually need, because not all of our members are active. 

“We run calls for service and emergency and routine-type calls,” he continued. “We do pre-incident surveys throughout the district on businesses and hard-to-reach structures. We have a lot of schools, so we do fire prevention, career days and stand by for sporting events. We also do daily apparatus checks, equipment checks and station maintenance and upkeep. We also do hydrant maintenance and any other public relations event that may pop up.”

Drum said Pumpkin Center’s fire district hasn’t seen much commercial growth.

“But residential growth is moving very fast,” he noted. “We have big (3,500-square feet and larger) houses being built without any water sources (hydrants) nearby. So water movement is the biggest plan we have to come up with. An example is either by trucks or by adding another department to the call card. With limited help during the daytime hours, you now have to worry, ‘Is that truck going to respond?’ So there is another plan that has to be made. To ease some of that stress on getting units out the door and answering that call is why I feel you are seeing more and more paid staff. We have been backed into a corner as leaders––not because we have a limited amount of personnel. I feel it is due to the fact we have a limited amount of active personnel. 

“The fire chiefs and boards of directors have one job and one job only,” Drum added, “and that is to ensure that the citizens of that district are getting the protection they need. So sometimes decisions have to be made that are unpopular to both the membership roster and the citizens of that district. But a decision has to be made. As an example, if I go into a shop to get my oil changed, I expect an oil change––not just a new sticker. So we as leaders do everything we can to ensure that when someone calls 911, they get the help they need. Whether we agree with that type of service or not, people have got to get the help, and that is what matters. Unless we change society’s way of thinking, we will continue to battle this issue. Just imagine if all of our 36 members were active, and all the calls for service were answered in a reasonable amount of time. Do you think the question of whether paid staff was needed or not would come up? I don’t think it would.” 

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