Washington Times-Herald, Ind.
Jun. 29—Volunteer fire departments in southern Indiana are a key to the health and safety in this rural area. As housing and some businesses have moved millions of dollars in property value out of cities and towns and away from paid fire departments, the willingness and ability of people to become volunteer firefighters has declined.
“There is a real shortage of volunteer firefighters in the area,” said Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tony Wichman. “We have a 26-slot roster, but only have 22 fire fighters now. I would say if you check with all of the fire departments, we are probably needing at least 20 more volunteers.”
Elnora is one of the departments that is looking for a few good men and women to answer the call when the fire bell rings. “It is a challenge to get people to be a part of firefighting,” said Elnora Volunteer Fire Department Chief Rob Dove, whose department is three people short of a full 18-member roster. “We are always looking for committed, energetic people.”
Veale Township is an area that has seen its fire department fall from 20 volunteers to 8. “It is really hard to get people to join up,” said Veale Township Volunteer Fire Chief Mark Barber. “You ask someone to join and then you tell them it will take 36 hours of basic training and then more training and they start losing interest.”
The Odon and Loogootee Volunteer Fire Departments are exceptions to the shortage rule.
“We are fortunate,” said Chief J.D. Flynn. “We have more people that want to be on the fire department right now than we have spots.”
“Right now, our roster is full,” said Odon Volunteer Fire Department Chief Steven Ford. “Just the same it is hard to get people to volunteer. You have to go through the same training as a professional firefighter but you don’t get paid.”
Even departments that are full or nearly full though have their moments when they don’t have enough people to respond to trouble quickly.
“My biggest worry is from about 7:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon,” said Dove. “Since everyone is a volunteer, a lot of them leave town and go to work. When we receive a fire call during the day there are just a handful of people around to respond.”
“These are volunteers,” added Flynn. “A lot of our people work in Jasper and Crane and Washington. During the work day we have about five guys to go on a call. If it is a structure fire, we automatically call for mutual aid from neighboring departments.”
With dwindling numbers on each department, the need for mutual aid increases with each fire.
“It takes around 12 to 15 guys to fight a structure fire,” said Wichman.
“And in most of Daviess County, if it is a rural fire then you are going to have to bring in water to fight it,” added Barber. “That means more trucks and more people.”
The shuffling of available firefighters on mutual aid calls has another impact.
“As soon as the guys leave to go to another district to fight a fire, that leaves our district exposed,” said Ford. “We have to just hope nothing happens while we are out helping the neighboring department.”
Despite the shrinking number of volunteers, the need for them in the rural areas is continuing to grow. In 1974 Washington Township made 26 runs. Now, between accidents, ambulance assistance runs, and fires the department is being called out almost 300 times a year.
“It became even larger since the opening of I-69,” said Wichman. “The growth is remarkable. We are protecting at least 10 times the number of businesses, everything from the small cabinet shops to GPC.”
“We have also seen a real jump in the number of runs,” added Flynn. “A lot of ours are now assisting with ambulance runs.”
The ambulance runs are not the only reason fire departments are seeing more action.
“It used to be you only rolled out the fire department for fires, but the fire service on all levels has evolved,” said Ford. “Now, we go to accidents and on ambulance runs. If someone smells something odd in their home we get called. People rely on the fire department for more things than putting out fires. I would say our runs have gone from 20 or 30 a year to as many as 150.”
Another challenge for the volunteer departments is the age of their current members. Many are no longer in prime firefighting condition.
“A large number of our people are over 60,” said Barber.
“I have some guys that are over 60,” added Flynn. “I try to keep them out working on the pumpers and not sending them into a burning building.”
But it is difficult to find younger people to take over. “It is hard to get some of the younger people involved,” said Clark. “They have jobs and family and things they are involved in and they aren’t able to find the time to commit to being a firefighter that gets nothing but the gratitude of the community for their effort.”
One thing that many people don’t think about is that the strength of the local fire department has an impact on home owner insurance rates.
“Our ISO (Insurance Services Organization) rating is pretty good,” said Wichman. “Most of the rural areas though are at a maximum rating and that goes into the cost for insurance.”
No one is sure how to fix the volunteer shortage. Although there are some ideas.
“I have talked with our state representatives about the possibility of tax breaks for these volunteers,” said Flynn. “That or maybe a small retirement fund. I just think there should be some kind of reward for people who take the time for the training and then are willing to run into a burning building to help their neighbors.”
The fire chiefs in the area, who have spent a lot of time on the departments say the thing they most need is people with a commitment to their community.
“Volunteer firefighting is about 80% work and 20% fun,” said Wichman. “It is exciting to go put out a fire. But then there is the clean up and rolling up hoses and everything else that is not exciting.”
“I think we do it for the community, for the people who live here and because there is a need,” said Flynn. “We really need people with that kind of commitment to join all of the area departments.”
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