Buncombe County – In every age, the danger of fire has threatened our communities. Calm summer evenings and quiet wintery nights have been spliced by the sound of a fire station alarm. Men and women from all walks of life scrambled to answer the call, and the majority of those men and women are volunteers. Volunteers staffed the first fire stations in the U.S., and not much has changed…
…except their numbers.
In Buncombe County, North Carolina, the volunteer firefighter shortage has reached a critical emergency state. Every four days in North Carolina a life is lost to fire. That’s one person gone every week or less.
Volunteers make up the largest part of the fire service in our state. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 72 percent of North Carolina firefighters are volunteers, and NC fire departments have lost an average of 600 firefighters every year since 2016.
Fewer volunteers create the need for us to call other departments outside our district to assist. This strains other departments and leaves fewer firefighters to respond if a fire breaks out elsewhere.
We’re taking action. The North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs (NCAFC) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) launched a campaign with 12 North Carolina counties, including Buncombe County, to boost volunteer firefighter recruitment. To support our efforts, the NCAFC obtained a SAFER grant through FEMA.
Our strategy includes a combination of traditional recruitment methods along with technology to pinpoint the communities likely to have recruit candidates. We’re offering leadership workshops, supporting policy changes and advocating for employers who allow volunteers time off to help their communities.
Anyone, from grandparents and teachers to college students and mechanics, can play a role. We seek administrative and marketing personnel and even beckon entire families to volunteer together.
Helping our fellow neighbor is one of our most iconic American traits – and a vital need that we’re determined to see survive.
Editor’s note: Shelton is the fire chief at French Broad and Dennis Fagnant is the fire chief at West Buncombe. This opinion was endorsed by Tracy Mosley, Program Manager of the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs.