Questioning the changes
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.
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.”
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.