By Kendall McGee | June 24, 2020 at 4:53 PM EDT – Updated June 24 at 7:49 PM
ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. (WECT) -As the state faces a shortage of volunteer firefighters, the NC Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Fire Chiefs are kicking off a two-year plan designed to alleviate staffing shortages in key parts of North Carolina.
More than 70 percent of NC firefighters are volunteers. As the state sees the number of volunteer firefighters decline at 11-12 percent every year, several communities are in critical need of firefighters.
Bladen County was identified as one of the 15 at risk counties chosen to take part in the effort.
Elizabethtown Fire Department is the only department in the county that has a paid staff of firefighters, according to Chief Nick West. The other fire agencies in the region are predominately staffed by volunteers.
“There is a shortage, not only in Bladen County but this region itself. We will be utilizing this information from the workforce solutions program and getting the word out saying ‘we need some support.’ It’s a critical level for department members in Bladen County…some members volunteer in multiple departments,” said Chief West.
The campaign is funded by a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant to enhance the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. The effort will include local research on where to find potential volunteer firefighters and workshops to improve recruitment and retention.
Just a month into the campaign, the chief says they’ve seen an overwhelming response from the community. The new interest in lending a hand is further encouraged by the department moving to a brand new station that will serve as a crisp new backdrop for tours and educational events.
The chief says recently, they were awarded a grant for a fitness trainer for the department, giving potential volunteer firefighters even more incentive to work with Elizabethtown Fire.
Having a full staff of firefighters allows the department to work faster at fires and medical calls and do things like better handle traffic at car crash scenes, ensuring the safety of all the first responders working the call.
In addition to emergencies, volunteers are vital to efforts that prevent tragedies in the first place like smoke alarm canvassing, educational outreach and fire inspections.
“We want people to know we rely on our volunteers and say ‘look what we can accomplish in Elizabethtown or Bladen County with the great volunteers we have in our community.’ Its really humbling for sure. We’ve noticed in the hurricanes, people can’t necessarily volunteer but they bring stuff and ask ‘what can they do’ and you can tell in times of crisis, small communities really come together,” said West. “It takes a big effort from a lot of different people to help this work and we’re just thankful for the opportunity to get the word out and say here’s what our community’s needs are and here’s how we can expand it and make it better for sure.”
To learn more about becoming a volunteer firefighter and joining a local volunteer fire department, please visit www.VolunteerFireNC.org.
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