Editorial: Fire service changing in rural areas 

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 10, 2021

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You work third shift, and you’ve put in a long, hard night at work.

You get home, ready to relax, but the kids are just getting out of bed and hungry. They’re wide open and energetic. So you start breakfast, then sit down to talk to those kids about their upcoming day. You get lost in their world.

The next thing you know, you smell smoke coming from the kitchen. You rush inside, only to find flames ready to reach the walls.

What do you do?

Hopefully, you’ve got a fire extinguisher handy.

But most likely, your first action — and rightfully so — will be to call 911.

We’ve been trained to call 911 during an emergency. We dial the number and expect someone to be there to solve the problem immediately. That’s not going to happen all of the time with a volunteer department. They have to stop what they’re doing, rush to the department, change into special gear, crank the truck and head to your house. These volunteers get there as quickly as they can, and for that, we’re thankful.

But it’s getting harder and harder for fire departments to maintain a long enough list of volunteers to answer calls all day long. And with medical calls now being answered by fire department first responders as well, that list gets even smaller.

Davie County — like every other — is not immune to this problem. They’ve provided some paid firefighters to work at these understaffed departments during the day when fewer volunteers are available. County commissioners recognize the fact that fire service is changing, and are providing extra funding over the fire tax for local departments. How it is distributed is a bit contentious — evenly among all departments, or more for those with the most calls and property values in the respective district? That’s a tough call. But at least our county is headed in the right direction.

Luckily, we’ve not heard of any catastrophe caused by a lack of response to a call, but if we don’t do more — as commissioners are trying to do — things could become really bad.

Is this a plug to become a local fire department volunteer? Sure, there are never enough.

Is this a warning for elected officials to start providing more money for paid firefighters? Sure, there are never enough.

Is this a heads-up for all of us to realize the fact that fire protection isn’t free, that someone has to buy the trucks, pay for the gas, pay for the protective equipment for our firefighters, and on and on. And more and more, someone has to pay the firefighters, too. Sure, but don’t we pay a fire tax for that? Yes, we do. But it’s not enough. In fact, it’s barely enough to keep most departments afloat. That’s why you see so many barbecues and other events. They need more funds. Look at the price of a new — or used, for that matter — fire truck. Then you’ll understand.

It’s not surprising that volunteer firefighters are becoming harder to find. For one thing, it’s difficult. You have to be trained. You have to follow government rules and regulations. You have to be willing to leave the ones you love behind to go to try to help someone else. You have to be willing to risk your life for others. Whoa, that last one knocks many of us out with a simple punch.

Look around at our civic organizations. They’re having some of the same recruitment problems. The average age is too old to be sustainable for a long time. In other words, they’re slowly dying.

It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen to our fire departments.

Mike Barnhardt is editor of the Davie County Enterprise Record.