WEST JEFFERSON-Good help, it seems, is harder to come by these days.
At least that’s the consensus of the state and local emergency personnel tasked with recruiting and training the men and women who make up the state’s emergency response units.
That label fits a wide assortment of volunteer fire and rescue organizations – there are at least a dozen in Ashe County alone – that are usually the first people to respond to everyday emergencies like auto crashes, sick calls and house fires.
“It’s not just us and it’s not just in Ashe County,” Ashe County Rescue Squad Captain Rob Blevins said. “It’s across the state – across the country – but the bottom line is that it’s hard to get the kinds of volunteer help that you need, and that’s unfortunate.”
Since it was formed in the early 1960s, the Ashe County Rescue Squad has filled a niche as a countywide rescue organization focused on things like land searches, water rescues and difficult auto extractions that could mean the difference between life and death for trapped motorists.
Blevins said it was the seventh “heavy rescue” certified rescue squad in North Carolina, and its members routinely undergo the kinds of adrenalin inducing training – like high angle rescue – that once attracted a surplus of volunteers.
But those days are over, Blevins said, for a host of reasons.
“You know I really think it comes down to, in a lot of ways, the pace at which people live their lives now,” Blevins said. “Once upon a time, places like Ashe County were made up on small businesses and farms, things that operated at a slower pace, where people could take time out to respond to things like fires or wrecks.”
North Carolina State Fire Marshal Mike Causey has noticed the same trend and recently commented on it in an op-ed in the Jefferson Post and other newspapers.
Causey said the National Volunteer Fire Council has studied recruitment and retention problems at volunteer firehouses around the country. That organizations report lists “more demands on people’s time in a hectic modern society; more stringent training requirements; population shifts from smaller towns to urban centers; changes in the nature of small town industry and farming; internal leadership problems; and a decline in the sense of civic responsibility.”
Add a bevy of state mandated training hours – North Carolina requires 36 annual hours for volunteer firefighters – and Causey said you have a recipe for recruitment and retention woes.
“It’s got to the point now where the training requirements from the state has become so stringent that people can’t really be just a volunteer,” Blevins said. “You’ve got to devote a lot of yourself to this. It’s class after class and you expect people to be there more and more and more.”
That’s why both Blevins and Causey said an emphasis on cultivating younger volunteers could be a cornerstone to any recruitment and retention fix.
Causey said 27 North Carolina high schools currently have firefighter academy programs that offer younger men and women the opportunity to gain exposure emergency service skills and develop rapport with volunteer and professional mentors.
And Blevins said the rescue squad, along with many of the county’s volunteer firefighting outfits, allows junior members to participate if they meet certain requirements.
“And that’s promising to see young people come to this with energy,” Blevins said. “There’s talent there.”
But right now, that trickle isn’t enough to replenish the ranks.
One way or the other, Causey said emergency services needs will have to be met – with the help of volunteers or paid staff.
“If we’re unable to get enough volunteers, counties and their taxpayers will feel the pressure to feel the void,” Causey wrote. “Having ample volunteer firefighters can result in lives saved, injuries prevented, property protected, savings on insurance premiums and potentially savings on local property taxes.”
Paid members is an option Blevins said the Ashe County Rescue Squad is studying, but said no concrete plans are being laid to move in that direction.
“The real, honest truth is that paying for these services is the most sustainable way forward,” Blevins said. “Ashe is already a vacation hot spot, we’re growing and the (widening of US-221) is going to bring even more growth. As people come, they’re going to get injured, lost, be in car wrecks. That’s just the nature of this.”
Water rescue calls are near their highest rates ever, Blevins said, and he expects demands on volunteer firefighters and the rescue squad to only increase.
“I think a lot of departments are maybe thinking about ways to pay one or two people to ensure that you’re always going to be able to meet that high demand,” Blevins said. “It’s a conversation a lot of people are going to start having.”
Right now, Blevins said if you’re interested in joining the Ashe County Rescue Squad the first thing you need to do is assess your suitability for volunteering.
“They need to ask themselves, ‘Am I suited to this? Do I have the desire? Do I have the time to commit to this,” Blevins said.
The next step would be to call the Ashe County Rescue Squad at 336-846-6010 and then stop by a squad meeting, which are held the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 6 p.m.
“Whether it’s with the rescue squad or one of the fire departments, I would say if somebody has any interest in this at all, to come by,” Blevins said. “You’re going to get to do some really cool stuff, help people when they need it the most and really earn a sense of belonging.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.