Interest in volunteer firefighting decreasing
The number of volunteer firefighters decreased in recent years, forcing officials to consider a new plan for responding to fires in the county, according to an official.
The county is debating an increased millage rate to realign fire stations and have paid firefighters on duty along with volunteers.
Public Safety Director Randy Lacey said he didn’t have exact numbers on how many Polk County volunteer firefighters are no longer serving, but said his data shows there are nine less to fight a fire now than in 2008.
Lacey said there were 22.5 volunteer firefighters responding to an incident in 2008, compared to 13 now.
The numbers started dropping in 2008 when the economy bottomed out, Lacey said.
“You’re looking at the economy, young great guys working two jobs and going down to Atlanta to work,” Lacey said.
He said finding people to volunteer between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. has been especially problematic because many are either sleeping to go to work or getting ready for work.
A drop in volunteer firefighters is a nationwide problem with data stating there are 13 percent less firefighters than there was in 2008, he said.
Lacey said many older firefighters are retiring out without a lot of volunteers to replace them.
New state training standards, implemented in 2011, have discouraged some from continuing, Lacey said.
The numbers show there was a substantial drop in volunteer firefighters, amounting to three lost firefighters for a call, in Polk County from 2011 to 2012.
The drop was more gradual in previous years and amounted to one lost firefighter for a call each year dating back to 2008, according to Lacey.
Lacey said the Polk County Volunteer Fire Department receives $250,000 to run its nine stations annually. Of that, $45,000 is used for equipment with each station allocated $5,000. The rest is used operations and maintenance, Lacey said.
The safety director said there are valid reasons why a special purpose sales tax (SPLOST) or a penny tax will not work to fund the fire department. He said SPLOST money must go to pay for equipment only and can’t pay for staffing. A penny tax could be affected by the economy, Lacey said.
Lacey said becoming a volunteer firefighter is not an easy task. It requires filing an application and undergoing a background check, drug screening, and an interview with potential captains and fellow firefighters.
He said those with felonies on their records over the past 10 years are not eligible to serve as a volunteer for the department, or if someone has been previously investigated.
Those approved as a volunteer then have a year to complete fire training and basic EMS training, are given turnout gear.
“It’s like you’re applying for a job,” he said. “There are a lot of state guidelines we have to go through in order for someone to volunteer, because we receive state and federal grant money.”