Wanted in NC: More volunteer firefighters

Local and state officials on Thursday launched a new effort to combat the declining number of volunteer firefighters in North Carolina.

Led by Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Wayne Goodwin, a committee made up of representatives from fire departments, local government and community colleges discussed how to address the decline, which has been an issue in the state – and across the country – for more than a decade. Goodwin noted that the shrinking volunteer force puts the public and firefighters at increased risk, and that it has negative repercussions on local taxes and insurance rates.

“The percentage of volunteer firefighters has continued to drop precipitously,” Goodwin told the committee, which met in Burlington at Elon University’s Center for Community Engagement. “Before we see those numbers drop even further, I believe it is vital to have this conversation and look at ways to address, resolve and adapt to the situation.”

Goodwin requested authorization from the state legislature to research and develop a report on firefighter volunteerism and received it through N.C. House Bill 287, which Gov. Pat McCrory signed June 30.

Goodwin said insurance companies determine premiums for communities based on factors such as the strength of the firefighter roster, response times and the age of equipment and supplies. When the number of volunteers goes down, the premiums go up, he said.

Goodwin said the state has about 54,000 fire and rescue workers, and that 72 percent of those are volunteers. According to a survey released by the National Fire Protection Association in January, there were 788,250 volunteer firefighters in the country in 2014, about 20,000 fewer than in 1986, despite a larger population.

“This is not just a North Carolina problem,” Goodwin said. “We have an opportunity to be a national leader when it comes to innovation.”

He attributed this decline to a number of factors. When volunteer firefighters worked in the communities in which they lived, he said, they could respond quickly when a call came. But he said that as “manufacturing plants and textile plants have closed and North Carolinians are traveling farther to work,” it is increasingly difficult to respond quickly to calls.

He added that the types of calls and training that is needed to respond to them have also changed in recent years – and that the increased number of hours required has become an additional deterrent to volunteers.

“You have more responses to vehicle accidents and to suicide attempts and to things that require more training, more sensitivity and greater knowledge of what you might face as you approach a particular call,” Goodwin said.

He said potential solutions that have been proposed include streamlining the training program and offering volunteer firefighters tax credits or community college tuition waivers. The goal of the committee will be to come up with additional ideas, and Goodwin said he anticipates the committee will meet several times in coming months.

Rachel Chason: 919-829-4629