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Friday, January 18, 2013

Depletion in the ranks

Number of volunteer firefighters around Smith Mountain Lake is decreasing.

Dave Pearsall inscribes each hose with ink while firefighter Skip Decker and volunteer Mark Jordan stand in the distance.

The trio from Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer Fire/Rescue Co. wait for water, 400 pounds per square inch of it, to flood the multicolored hoses while those already tested lay coiled inside the station at Scruggs Fire and Rescue.

"You mark around the collars, so when it pressurizes and pulls away, you can tell," he said.

This is the unglamorous side of firefighting: tedious but serious work performed in heavy fire gear on a beautiful Saturday morning.

"Many hands make light work," said Pearsall, a "young" 63-year-old who said he joined SML Fire/Rescue as a firefighter to give back to his community.

Area fire departments are continually striving for new recruits in an era when volunteering is declining. Not all volunteering involves flashing lights and sirens.

According to area firefighters, many factors have contributed to a drop in membership: an aging lake population; family and work demands on time; a generation gap; and the necessity of performing less-glamourous chores such as fire hose inspections.

"The volunteer we got 20 years ago is not the volunteer we get today," said Jeff Pauley, president of Moneta Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. "Twenty years ago, it was the 20- to 30-year-old. I'd love to have those today."

According to Pauley, the department gains on average five new members a year. Only two of those recruits will continue past the first year, he said.

Meanwhile, training for new volunteers can be an excruciating 160 hours of classroom time and hands-on training with an additional 32 hours devoted to hazardous materials.

It can also be physically and mentally demanding, Pearsall said.

Joel Schott, second lieutenant with Scruggs Fire Department and a three-year volunteer, can attest to that. The 23-year-old was partnered with Pearsall during fire training and routinely solicits friends to join.

"I get the same story every time," Schott said. "Why would you risk your life to help someone for free?"

Besides the lack of compensation, there is the inconvenience factor. Calls frequently occur at night and in adverse weather conditions, and can sometimes be heart-rending. Pearsall was present at two of Smith Mountain Lake's drownings this year.

"I take it very seriously," said Pearsall. "I'm not aware of anybody who thinks it's a casual commitment. When people call, they need you."

"Somebody's gotta do it," said Cody Williams.

The 18-year-old donates his time to both the fire and medical divisions of Scruggs Fire and Rescue while he awaits class training in either department.

"Whatever call they get, if they can use me, I'm there," Williams said.

"We need able and capable bodies," said Pauley. "Not just any bodies. Can I use a 50-year-old mom who has great office skills? Absolutely. Can I use someone with a marketing background but no firefighting skills? Absolutely."

Rick McDonald, 67, of Saunders Volunteer Fire Company in Bedford County, is helping his community through Web design.

A four-year member of the department, McDonald doesn't fight fires. Instead, he assists the department with its marketing efforts and recruitment drive.

"It's one of those organizations where you wear many hats," McDonald said.

"There's a myriad of things people could do to help us," said Chief George Tawes of SML Marine Volunteer Fire/Rescue, citing the need for citizens skilled in record-keeping and people willing to present fire prevention programs on behalf of the department.

Volunteering not only benefits the community during an emergency, but additional recruits means a trimmer bottom line for homeowners.

Fire/Rescue averages 350 to 400 calls a year, and according to Tawes, actively tries to improve its insurance rating, which means a decrease in fire premiums for homeowners.

The greater number of firefighters on boats, the better the rating, Tawes said.

In addition, some communities have reverted to paid firefighters in response to declining recruitment. Volunteer departments, therefore, save citizens additional monies, he said.

"I think as community members, we get good bang for the buck," said Tawes. "Donations are a far better deal than tax dollars."

In spite of limited manpower and funding, Tawes said that a call has never been dropped.

Decker has been a firefighter since the age of 13; his father was a founding member of his hometown's fire department in West Milford, N.J.

"For people to say, you don't have time - well you don't have time to help your neighbor?" he asked.