Volunteer firefighters play key role in South Carolina towns, but the state needs twice as many

July 15, 2017 GMT

South Carolina is fighting more fires with a serious shortage of volunteers, a shortage that shows no signs of abating as departments struggle to bring more young people into service.

Volunteers make up 65 percent of the state’s 17,000 firefighters. Twice as many of them are needed to fill the gap in situations where minutes can mean the difference between life and death.

The people who give their time to fire service embody a sense of community that some say has faded over the years. These days, people are more mobile, lives are more hectic and spare time is at a premium.

“We don’t see volunteerism in general being popular among young people, for some reason,” said Jason Pope, deputy director of the S.C. Firefighters Association.

A fresh supply of newly minted non-career firefighters is needed to raise the average age of volunteers, he said.

“The guys are getting older, the guys who make up the volunteer service, and so there’s nobody to replace them,” he said. “That’s definitely a challenge, statewide. That’s nationwide.”

In recognition of the problem, some high schools offer firefighter training as part of their curriculum.

The learning curve can be steep and the job dangerous. Nationwide, 52 percent of the 90 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2015 were volunteers.

But being one of those who give their time to part-time firefighting can create a spark of passion for full-time service, where a foot in the door can lead to training and a new career.

For many of the old guard, that’s how it all started.

“I got the bug,” said Lexie Townsend, who has been going with her volunteer firefighter father “for 18 years.” She participated in a training session at the Sullivan’s Island Fire Department on Wednesday, July 11, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

‘Just for the love of it’

Kevin Townsend, a longtime volunteer for Sullivan’s Island Fire Department, has been part of ocean rescues, fighting house fires, finding missing people and even catching a sexual predator.

He has given his time to the island fire service for 20 years.

Sullivan’s, one of the priciest ZIP codes in the country, has about 30 volunteer firefighters. Many of them, including Townsend, live in Mount Pleasant.

“It’s a special feeling when you are there to help someone in their time of need,” he said. “A lot of what we do is tragedy, but there are a lot of the little things, like finding a missing child.”

Townsend, a construction company owner, said his daughter Lexie, 18, got the volunteer bug while tagging along with her dad on fire calls. She is now a Sullivan’s probationary firefighter.

The island has 11 full-time firefighters, 1,800 residents and thousands of visitors daily during the summer.

“Volunteers help every day during the summer,” said Andy Benke, town administrator.

And for Townsend, the reason is simple:

“Just for the love of it,” he said.

Other veterans, such as Chief Larry Garvin of the St. Paul Fire District, feel the same.

He started his career as a volunteer at the rural fire department that covers 300 square miles, including Hollywood, Ravenel, Meggett, Adams Run and Edisto Island.

At first the department was all-volunteer. It was exciting to learn the job and help the community.

“You see something burning and you just get on it and put it out,” Garvin said.

But times are changing, he said, and he doesn’t feel the same emphasis on community.

“The camaraderie is not what it used to be, and it’s all about ‘Get me a paycheck.’ ” he said. “That’s a sad thing to say, but that’s the way I see it.”

It’s not just a Lowcountry problem.

Preparing for a funeral procession, Logan Prince (right) and engineer Tom Hagers came by the rural Pimlico Fire Department Thursday afternoon to wash its primary fire truck. Both men -- Hagers, a volunteer for 5 years, and Prince for 3 years, since he was 16 -- will miss a day of work and pay Friday to attend the funeral of a fellow Berkeley County firefighter who had volunteered for 28 years. Wade Spees/Staff July 13, 2017

Community spirit

In the Midlands, Newberry Fire Chief Keith Minick protects 10,000 residents with 18 paid firefighters and 14 volunteers.

In times gone by, people gave their time to the fire department for 20 years or more. Now, Newberry is lucky to get a volunteer for five years, he said.

“We’re struggling,” he said. “In today’s world, people work outside their community, some families have two jobs. Time is something of value to people.”

In-house training at Newberry is difficult to schedule because of varying work and family schedules. And turnout at fires can be an issue.

“You can’t dictate when the fire is going to occur and you can’t dictate volunteers, but they are a big savings to us in our community,” he said.

Volunteers need 240 hours of training for a risky job that includes auto extrication, handling hazardous materials and knowing what to do if there is an active shooter.

“There’s a lot more to it now than years ago when you used to come together as a community and put the water on the fire and go home,” Minick said. “It is very important to have a dedicated volunteer fire service to help augment the paid service.”

Most departments that use volunteers protect about 25,000 people. Some 65 percent of the volunteers have more than five years of service, officials said.

Vital role

James Island firefighters work to extinguish the flames at EME Apartments. The island PSD Fire Department has an all-paid staff but about 65 percent of firefighters in the state are volunteer. Provided

Volunteers play a big role at a number of smaller departments. Up to half of firefighters in Dorchester County are volunteers. Berkeley County relies on them, too, except in Moncks Corner and Goose Creek, said Pope, who is a volunteer fireman in Fairfield County.

Smaller departments in the Grand Strand, such as the one in Conway, use volunteers but rely mostly on paid staff. There, 34 career firefighters work with 10 volunteers who have varying degrees of experience, including some with more than 20 years.

“We have not added any volunteers in several months for various reasons, but we begin interviews next month,” said Fire Chief Phillip Hendrick.

Surfside Beach has seven career firefighters and about 25 volunteers.

“Our career staff works a 24-on, 48-hour-off schedule. We call back the volunteers when needed for fires and wrecks and such,” said fire chief Kevin Otte.

Fire protection in the U.S. includes 2,651 all-career, 1,893 mostly career, 5,421 mostly volunteer and 19,762 all-volunteer departments.

Metro area fire departments such as Charleston and North Charleston are staffed with career, paid firefighters, but no volunteers. The Columbia Fire Department, however, is an exception because it has about 120 volunteers who respond to fires in Richland County. The city has a contract with the county to provide that service.

“We definitely love our volunteers,” said Columbia spokesman Brick Lewis. “That’s how this department started over a hundred years ago, bucket brigades and things such as that.”

Although getting volunteers on board can be a problem, recruiting full-time staff can be a challenge, too.

“Overall the labor pool in fire service is getting thinner and thinner, and it’s harder for recruitment and retention,” said Mauldin Fire Chief Bill Stewart. He supervises 53 paid firefighters serving a population of 40,000.

Years ago, the Mauldin department might get 50 applications for a vacancy.

“Now we’re lucky to get two dozen with the proper credentials and training,” he said.

Reaching out

Mauldin has programs that connect teens with full-time firefighters so they can explore their interest in the profession. But volunteering for the fire service seems to have lost some appeal.

“One of the problems with volunteerism is, over the years, it’s just dropped off statewide,” he said. “It’s created a shortfall across the state.”

Getting more people involved in the volunteer fire service is a priority for Bryan Riebe, recruitment and retention coordinator for the S.C. Firefighters Association.

Ideally, South Carolina needs to double its roster of nearly 11,000 volunteers to ensure the optimal force on scene at a blaze, he said.

He advocates replacing classroom instruction with more flexible online learning so fledgling firefighters can better juggle work, personal life and training.

Changes are already happening to help young people get the training they need for volunteer or career fire service.

The state Department of Education offers firefighter education at 25 high school programs where 350 students are enrolled. The classroom instruction includes more than 200 hours of training for basic firefighter certification.

The Berkeley County Career and Technical Education Center works with high schools for firefighter training. Students must turn 18 before they can volunteer for hazardous duty.

South Carolina is not alone when it comes to the role volunteer firefighters play in maintaining public safety. Across the country, 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers, but in the past three decades their numbers have fallen 10 percent to 808,150 while fire department service calls have nearly tripled to 33.6 million. Volunteers save fire departments $139 billion annually nationwide, experts say.

The National Volunteer Fire Council has recruitment efforts such as the federally funded “Make Me A Firefighter” program aimed at helping local departments attract volunteers who may choose a career path.

‘In their blood’

Volunteerism led Chris Seabolt into a career as a firefighter. Today, he is chief of the James Island Public Service District Fire Department, where he oversees a paid staff of 54 employees. His firefighters are also trained as medical first responders.

“We have had volunteers in the past. As things changed on James Island we just slowly moved away from them,” Seabolt said. “A lot of times people lose interest in volunteering. It’s not what it used to be.”

Volunteer firefighters do not get paid but they may, at the discretion of the department, be reimbursed a small amount of tax-free money for time spent on shifts, responding to calls and training.

Garvin, the St. Paul chief, said he recently brought back the volunteer program which was scrapped under the former chief, Doc Matthews.

St. Paul does not pay its volunteers, but it covers the expense of equipping and training them.

“If you come to work in the fire service for money, you’re coming for the wrong reason,” he said.

St. Paul firefighters were earning $10.24 per hour. This budget year, starting July 1, they received a 2.1 percent increase. Entry level total compensation for a St. Paul firefighter is $32,000 annually when benefits are included.

“We are doing the best we can budget-wise,” he said.“Hopefully next year we will be able to give them more.”

The department has a half-dozen volunteers and a paid staff of about 60 firefighters.

Garvin recognized the vital role that volunteers play at smaller rural departments.

“It’s in their blood. These guys, they want to help the community,” he said.