January 3, 2014

Whitfield County seeks more volunteer firefighters

By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications

— When the Whitfield County Fire Department started in 1977, everyone was a volunteer except for the chief and his secretary.

The first four full-time firefighters eventually came on board in May 1979, and while that number has grown to 62 now, volunteers, as they always have, continue to play a key role in the success of the department.

Unfortunately, the hectic pace of life today has lately made it tougher for the department to recruit enough volunteers for all of the 10 stations scattered throughout the county.

Fire Chief Carl Collins, who himself started as a volunteer in 1977, is asking local residents to consider becoming a volunteer firefighter.

“Volunteers have always been an important part of the department,” Collins says, “and to this day they’re still important. We definitely couldn’t run the department without the volunteers — we just don’t have enough full-time firefighters.”

Indeed, half of the county’s stations are still manned by just one paid firefighter. In case of a structure fire, volunteers can often reach the scene quicker than the full-time firefighters from other stations who are normally dispatched to help out.

Collins says, thanks to the volunteers, the county averages 15 firefighters or more battling a typical structure fire, “and most full-time departments can’t even put that many people on a house fire. I mean, three usually is the most on duty at full-time departments, so even if they send two stations, they’re only looking at six people.”

Having that many extra volunteers on the scene “just makes putting the fire out easier,” the chief says.

They also make it easier for the county to meet its budget each year. After all, the full-time staff of 62 already costs taxpayers $2.6 million each year. If the county didn’t have the volunteers and had to staff each of its 10 stations with full-time personnel, that figure would increase to $10 million or more annually — much more than the amount allotted for volunteers now.

“We spend about $125,000 a year on the volunteers for their reimbursement and some T-shirts and the banquet we do for them,” Collins says.

And, the chief is quick to point out, the volunteers are trained to the same level that the full-time firefighters “here and anywhere else” are.

“They have the same professionalism as the full-timers do,” Collins says.

The volunteers in Whitfield’s combination fire department — as using a mixture of paid and volunteer firefighters is known in the business — have been a lifesaver for county taxpayers, both in terms of serving the public and lowering the county budget.

“It’s millions and millions and millions of dollars that the volunteers have saved the county since 1977,” Collins says. “Millions and millions and millions ... and we’re still saving.”

Unfortunately, while the department used to have about 60 full-time firefighters and 120 volunteers, the number of volunteers has recently fallen to the low 70s.

“A couple of the stations have only got two or three volunteers,” Collins says, “and we’ve got slots for 12 to 15 volunteers for each station.”

Luckily, some of the busier stations — like 2, 4, 7 and 8 — don’t have staffing problems, but the chief says it’s tougher to come up with volunteers in some of the more rural areas of the county where there just aren’t as many eligible residents to pull from.

Still, he encourages anyone who would like to be a volunteer firefighter, no matter where he or she lives, to check into it. “Depending on where they live in their district, we may be able to shift them around so they could cover a nearby district where there aren’t enough volunteers,” Collins says.

Unfortunately, desire isn’t the only criteria for becoming a volunteer firefighter.

“I have always said from day one that this is a profession that you’re going to learn very quickly whether you want to do it or you don’t want to have nothing to do with it,” the chief says. “Usually the first good working fire, two at the most, you’ll decide, ‘Hey, I love this,’ or ‘No, you ain’t getting me back in this again!’”

Fighting fires is something “that you can’t sit down here and explain to a person what they’re going to face,” Collins says.

“I can’t put in words what it’s like to be inside that burning structure with the heat and the fire and you’re suited up in a mask,” he says. “Some people are claustrophobic and just can’t handle that closed-in feeling with a mask. It takes a special person, and there’s really only one way to find out and that’s to try it and see.”

Collins himself had no intentions of becoming a firefighter until one day in 1977 when a friend told him volunteers were needed to help the county staff its new fire department.

“Farming and carpentering with my dad — that’s what I grew up doing,” Collins says. “But I told my friend, ‘Yeah, we need a fire station out here, I can volunteer.’ The whole time, I thought I’d sign up and do it a year or two and then go on about my business and be done with it.”

Once he began to train, though, Collins discovered he loved firefighting.

“It was something like I had never been exposed to at all,” he says. “It just got a hold of me, I reckon.”

Collins became fire chief in 1982 and has been leading the department ever since.

Now, he’s hoping to find about 30 more local residents who will offer their time to become a volunteer like he did 36 years ago. And just as it was for him and every other full-time employee now, volunteering could be the first step toward making the fire service a career.

“Our whole staff got started as volunteers,” he says.

He points out that anyone who volunteers will undergo extensive training. Being a firefighter is much more than just pointing a hose at a fire and trying to douse it with water.

“We’re fortunate in the fact that we do our own training right here that meets the state guidelines and gets the volunteers up to the point they need to be,” Collins says.

But that doesn’t mean the new firefighters — even after their initial training — are thrown to the wolves immediately.

“As soon as we get them through rookie school,” he says, “we don’t just say, go fight fire now. We still have an experienced person with them, but it will be different when they get out there on a real fire and the (experienced firefighter) has to be worried about putting the fire out and saving the property, not necessarily having this new person feel all wonderful.”

Collins doesn’t sugarcoat that fighting fires can be dangerous.

“We don’t necessarily face danger every day,” he says, “but myself and several others that’s been here a while, especially since the beginning, you know, the good Lord has watched after us. We’ve been in some bad places before, and, knock on wood, we’ve never had a fireman killed, thank God, and no real serious injury. One of our guys did get burned pretty good and had to have some burn therapy several years ago when a fire flashed back on him, but that’s been the most serious injury.

“We’ve had a little bit of smoke inhalation, sprains, and I ran a hot nail crawling through a house up between the side of my knee,” he says. “It didn’t feel too good, but I mean it wasn’t serious — tetanus shot and a few days hobbling around, and it was OK.”

But, Collins says, “you can’t bring somebody in here and explain everything and them feel what you’re telling them. They’re not going to feel it until they actually get there in a fire.”

To keep the firefighters as safe as possible, their training never stops.

In fact, training sessions are held each Tuesday for all firefighters, career and volunteer, and everyone is expected to attend most of them.

Collins realizes the economic reality of today’s world requires husbands and wives both to work to make ends meet, a fact that can keep some people from having enough time to volunteer.

Still, he encourages anyone who might be interested to stop by the 911 Center or their local fire station and pick up an application.

“We just want to get the word out that we could use some good folks who are interested in helping their community and providing a service for the community by volunteering for the fire department,” Collins said.