When there’s an emergency –be it a medical issue, car accident or fire – members of six Pocahontas County fire and rescue departments answer the call, day or night. Now imagine if those departments have all the equipment they need, but no one to use it. It’s a scary thought, but it is a reality nationwide.
As more and more volunteers reach retirement age and stop answering calls, fewer and fewer younger volunteers are stepping up to take their place.
In Pocahontas County, the six stations rely heavily on volunteers, with only a handful of paid full-time employees at three stations.
“We have two paid members,” Marlinton fire chief Herby Barlow said. “Week days – daytime – we’re a little stretched. We have the paid staff, of course, and then we rely heavily on folks that could possibly leave work. Jennifer [Barlow] – she’s fortunate. At the board of education, they’ll allow her to leave if we need a second crew or if it’s a fire call. She’s able to leave as long as she doesn’t have something pressing there at work.
“Jamie Kellison is the same way,” he continued, “ and I can leave work if I’m available to leave, but I’m in Green Bank, so it just depends.”
Several members own their businesses and are able to leave during week days, as well.
Others are either unable to leave their jobs for a call or have taken jobs out of the county and are only available on weekends.
“I’ve been an EMT since 94 and it’s hard for me to leave my job,” BFD fire chief Buster Varner said. “Most of the other EMTs all have jobs; you can’t make a living off of volunteering. That’s where we’re falling short. It’s not only us, it’s everybody around.”
Volunteering for the fire department and rescue squad takes a lot of time and commitment. All volunteers go through rigorous training and testing in order to get certified as firefighters, EMTs and paramedics.
“I know it’s definitely difficult,” Frost fire chief Steve Tritapoe said. “The state has a lot of requirements, and it requires a lot to become a volunteer nowadays. That’s understandable, because you are dealing with life and death situations and helping people, and we need to maintain a professionalism to it.
“On the other hand, a lot of volunteers are not willing to give up six, seven, eight weekends to become a trained firefighter either,” he continued. “A lot of places now are starting to go toward an online modular class, so I’m hoping those who are good with online classes and self-learning, self-pacing – I’m hoping that will change things.”
The classes are much like going to college. To become an EMT takes the equivalent of a semester of college. To become a paramedic, the volunteer must first become a certified EMT and then take 18 months of schooling to receive an associate’s degree. Those classes are usually offered on weekends – Friday through Sunday – for those who have full-time jobs.
Fire departments have implemented programs to attract volunteers, which has led to some membership growth.
There is a junior firefighter program where 16 to 18 year olds are able to join the departments and be active members to an extent.
“We have four to six juniors right now,” Barlow said. “With the junior EMT, even though they are certified through the state as an EMT, they cannot be the primary provider. There has to be an adult EMT or paramedic, and they can be the second provider on that truck. They can’t do it by themselves.
“As for junior firemen, we can use them to fight wild fires, but we can’t actively use them to fight structural fires,” he added.
The junior firefighter program has led to many volunteers sticking with the department, including Barlow.
“That’s how I started,” he said. “That’s how Travis Cook started. A lot of folks – we feel like it may be a good stepping stone for a lot of younger people.”
The program is also helpful to those who don’t know if being in emergency services is right for them. It helps teens decide if they want to pursue becoming a firefighter and/or EMT as a career path.
“We do not have any juniors listed, but I’ve had a couple in the past,” Tritapoe said. “They just decided it wasn’t for them and decided to go another direction. It’s perfectly fine. It’s not a problem. It’s definitely not for everybody.”
Being a firefighter and EMT/Paramedic isn’t for everybody, but there are those who have answered the call for decades and those who have the potential to join their ranks.
The chiefs understand the toll it takes and have experienced it first hand.
“I’ve been doing this since 1981,” Barlow said. “I don’t know how much more I’ve got in me to keep going. This day and age, I’m not missing my kid’s or grandkids’ sporting events or activities to make sure I’m there to take a call. I’ve lost a lot of time and energy for all the time we put in down here.”
With fewer members, the departments are sending the same volunteers out multiple times a day, which also takes a toll.
“We’ve got to have some help from somewhere,” Varner said. “We can’t just keep running our volunteers ragged. They’re just people – they’ve got lives and kids and have to work. It’s tough to do.”
Despite having a low membership countywide, the departments keep serving their communities the best they can.
“There’s not a single department in the county that can handle a true working structure fire by themselves,” Tritapoe said. “It’s going to be a multiple department task, which luckily, all departments are working well together. Everybody gets along well, and they’re all willing to help each other out. That’s the important thing at this point. I’m really thankful that everybody gets along.”
Those interested in becoming a volunteer at their local fire department are encouraged to visit the fire department or contact a member or the station to learn about the application process.
Bartow-Frank-Durbin Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company – 304-456-4999.
Cass Volunteer Fire Department – 304-456-4118.
Frost Volunteer Fire Department – 304-799-6660.
Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue – 304-572-3473.
Marlinton Volunteer Fire Department – 304-799-4211.
Hillsboro Volunteer Fire Department – 304-653-4636.