Ques­tion­ing the changes

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE -

The three vol­un­teers The News spoke to for this story all agreed that im­proved train­ing was a good thing. Where they took is­sue with O’Brien’s plan, was in what they viewed as a lack of com­mit­ment to vol­un­teers, a lack of re­spect and a lack of lee­way for vol­un­teers with par­tic­u­larly busy sched­ules.

In­con­sis­tent train­ing

Vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers Con­nie Head, Ron Sav­age and Gene Wil­liams all said the re­cent train­ings – and past train­ings – have been spo­radic, in­clud­ing can­celed train­ings and, at times, train­ings that ap­peared thrown to­gether at the last minute.

Wil­liams said he doesn’t blame the train­ers; he blames the fact they haven’t been given enough time to pre­pare train­ings.

“It hasn’t been very struc­tured. Some of it seems like ‘How are we go­ing to train the vol­un­teers this week? What are we go­ing to do?’” Wil­liam said. “That gets frus­trat­ing.”

At the same time, both Wil­liams and Head said they’ve en­joyed some of the train­ing, in­clud­ing the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act more closely with the ca­reer fire­fight­ers.

The vol­un­teers said there have been times when they would show up on a scene and not be used be­cause of a lack of fa­mil­iar­ity, and pos­si­bly trust, on the ca­reer side.

“Get­ting to work with the ca­reer side, we get that re­la­tion­ship so ev­ery­body knows what ev­ery­body can do,” Head said.

How­ever, the vol­un­teers also took of­fense at the orig­i­nal im­pli­ca­tion that they weren’t keep­ing up with train­ing. They all trained ev­ery Tues­day, and many of the vol­un­teer train­ers were state cer­ti­fied train­ers, just like the ca­reer train­ers.

Driv­ing test dis­re­spect­ful

One of the changes that’s most irked some long-time vol­un­teers was be­ing told they could no longer drive fire trucks with­out prov­ing they had the ba­sic skills.

Some vol­un­teers have been driv­ing trucks with­out in­ci­dent for decades.

While O’Brien has been telling vol­un­teers about the changes for the past two years, he only started en­forc­ing the new re­quire­ments in Jan­uary 2014. Head said there must have been some mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion about truck driv­ing be­cause many vol­un­teers com­plained about be­ing given their driv­ing skills task book in Jan­uary and be­ing told they had to com­plete it by the end of March.

Not enough lee­way

Be­ing a vol­un­teer comes with in­her­ent pros and cons. The pros are that the vol­un­teers are sac­ri­fic­ing their time and ef­fort to help out a good cause, which is its own level of ded­i­ca­tion. How­ever, the con is that they’re in­her­ently un­re­li­able be­cause their first pri­or­ity is to their pri­mary job and their fam­ily.

While that un­re­li­a­bil­ity is part of what’s led O’Brien to im­ple­ment changes, it’s also one of the rea­son vol­un­teers be­lieve there should be more lee­way when it comes to com­plet­ing train­ing re­quire­ments.

Head, the sta­tion man­ager for vol­un­teer Sta­tion 8, north of Ox­ford on Ga. High­way 81, has lost 11 of her 13 vol­un­teers dur­ing the past sev­eral months. “It’s just me and my cap­tain,” Head said. Some of her vol­un­teers left be­cause they didn’t want to do the county’s ver­sion of train­ing, but Head said most vol­un­teers left be­cause they sim­ply didn’t have time to meet the new re­quire­ments.

“A lot of people feel with vol­un­teers that they should do train­ing when they have time, and they shouldn’t be made to do it at a cer­tain time,” Head said.

Wil­liams said it may not seem hard to find time to put in 12 hours at a ca­reer sta­tion each quar­ter, but it’s not al­ways that sim­ple.

“If you have a fam­ily and sec­ond job, if you know how hard it is to go to Home De­pot; it can take you two weeks,” Wil­liams said. “That’s been dif­fi­cult. Some of us re­ally strug­gle to get it in there. I own my own busi­ness, so I’m on call 24/7. I’m sorry to the fire depart­ment, but if some­thing comes up, boom, I’m gone. You don’t pay my salary.”

Lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and re­spect

De­spite the fact O’Brien has been talk­ing about the changes for two years, Wil­liams said the com­mu­ni­ca­tion hasn’t al­ways been con­sis­tent.

While O’Brien tells any­one to send him a text or email any­time, Wil­liams said he’s not al­ways able to get a re­sponse for days or longer.

He also said that some of the in­for­ma­tion con­tained in news­pa­per ar­ti­cles pub­lished in De­cem­ber and May was news to him.

An­other ma­jor is­sue, men­tioned by all three vol­un­teers, is ac­tu­ally be­ing paged ev­ery time there’s a fire they could re­spond to.

Sav­age said O’Brien’s fig­ure of vol­un­teers re­spond­ing on 21 per­cent of calls is false, be­cause vol­un­teers aren’t con­tacted about ev­ery fire and some­times vol­un­teers are can­celed be­fore they ar­rive on scene.

Fi­nally, Sav­age said the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ‘my way or the high­way’ at­ti­tude rubbed him and oth­ers the wrong way. Oth­ers said many vol­un­teers feel like they’re be­ing pushed out.

“We know even­tu­ally New­ton County is go­ing to be all paid. We all un­der­stand that,” Wil­liams said. “And I don’t mind it go­ing full ca­reer. The county is get­ting big­ger… The county and com­mu­nity even­tu­ally need a full ca­reer fire depart­ment.

“But there are ways about let­ting us go out grace­fully than try­ing to get kicked out the door.”

So­lu­tions

Wil­liams said a con­certed ef­fort to im­prove the fre­quency and level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and to of­fer more re­spect to vol­un­teers would go a long way in so­lid­i­fy­ing re­la­tion­ships with the re­main­ing vol­un­teers.

How­ever, Sav­age said he’d like to see the county com­mis­sion­ers get more in­volved in the is­sue and in­ves­ti­gate the is­sues for them­selves. Sav­age said he has five young guys who want to be­come vol­un­teers, prov­ing there’s still in­ter­est.

“If you have people who want to vol­un­teer, I don’t see hold­ing them back be­cause of tech­ni­cal­i­ties,” Sav­age said.

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