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The Vanishing Volunteer Firefighter

By Will Johnson
Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – When a person calls the local fire department, chances are a volunteer will answer the phone. When a fire department responds to a call, the odds are still pretty strong that volunteers will be manning the hoses.

Unfortunately, volunteers are getting harder and harder to find.

“It’s not just us,” Crockett Fire Chief Jason Frizzell said. “It’s nationwide. I guess the new generation – I guess we need to learn how to reach out to the younger generation.”

It’s not just a younger generation, it’s also the rise in “… two-income households which often means that there is no stay-at-home parent to run things so the other can dash off for an emergency. Urbanization and the aging of the rural population are also taking their toll as fewer young people are available to replace firefighters who retire,” according to a 2014 article in the New York Times by Andrew Brown and Ian Urbina.

“At the national level,” Frizzell said, “over 70 percent of the fire departments are volunteer. For us – here in Crockett – it has been a slow decline. When I got on here in 1998, we had close to 30 people. That’s our max, but since then it’s just been a gradual decline.”

The fire chief said sometimes the VFD’s ranks swell but time, attrition and a mobile society eventually take their toll. Frizzell indicated at the end of last year there were a total of 22 volunteers “… but right now we only have 12 volunteers.”

The Crockett Fire Department has four paid positions, Frizzell said. These four are the fire chief, the fire marshal and two full-time firefighters.

“We are going to try and start going to the area schools and recruit at a younger age. We are willing to send people to the fire academy and pay for it through grants, if they’ll only give us their time. We can at least set them up for a career. Nobody’s coming to us, so we have to go to them,” Frizzell said.

“I wish I had the answers,” he laughed. “If I did, I could sell this to all the fire departments. Like I said, it’s a national problem and a local one as well. Latexo is needing people, Lovelady needs people, Weldon, Austonio – you name it, everybody needs people.”

The qualifications to join the Crockett Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter are fairly easy to attain. All you have to do is be at least 18-years-of-age and have either your high school diploma or GED.

“That’s pretty much it. We’ll send you to training. The Forest Service has a program called a 2604 and they allow up to $12,000 a year for training. We utilize that to send people to training. You don’t have to know anything. That’s the way I started, right out of high school. I didn’t know anything other than I wanted to be a firefighter. I’m one of the lucky few who gets paid for doing what they love,” the fire chief said.

The fire department, according to Frizzell, has tried different tactics to recruit volunteer firefighters including the use of social media and placing ads with the local media, but has met with little success.

“My biggest fear is when someone calls, we won’t have enough people to go,” he said. “When people call 911, they expect us to be there. We’ll be there, but I just don’t know how many other people will be.”

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.

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