By Zach Solon | February 25, 2021 at 3:27 PM EST – Updated February 25 at 7:40 PM
WHITEVILLE, N.C. (WECT) – The Whiteville Fire Department continues to battle a staffing shortage. In their January 2021 report to city council, the department said they are averaging just 6.6 personnel per structural incident; the National Fire Protection Association requirement is 14 firefighters.
The department consists of some full-time personnel and other paid, on-call volunteers. Whiteville Fire Chief David Yergeau says the lack of staff is not as much of an issue for initial response to incidents as it is to handle every task necessary when dealing with a structure fire.
“We need the right amount of people, when we do get there, to pull hose, catch a supply line, two in, two out, and to do rescues efficiently,” Yergeau said. “And, knock on wood, never have to pull another fire fighter out.”
The average response time for Yergeau’s staff was five minutes and 11 seconds in January, according to the report. Yergeau adds, however, that this is only for the minimum number of firefighters required to respond to a scene.
“Really, every structure fire, we’re understaffed,” Yergeau said. “Coming on a fire scene — when you first get there, you don’t have enough personnel to get through all the tasks and functions that are needed to do it.”
Yergeau says part of the cause of the staffing shortage is a lack of volunteers. He says the department has applied for a staffing grant offered by FEMA to help, but has been denied because there is a shortage of volunteers around the country. The department has been sharing volunteers with other local fire departments in an effort to combat the staffing shortage.
Whiteville’s Director of Emergency Services, Hal Lowder, thinks the lack of volunteers is “a sign of the times.”
“We don’t have the volunteerism that we once had,” said Lowder. “It’s harder for businesses to turn people loose so we never know what kind of resources are going to be coming to us in a timely manner.”
Lowder, an experienced firefighter, says the low number of initial responders to a fire is more of an issue for firefighters themselves than for others.
“We are tasked with doing an unsafe job safely. Safety is an issue when you have people fighting fire inside of a structure, those guys get in trouble quickly,” he said.
Lowder also says relying on volunteers can delay the response time for secondary responders, since many volunteers have to leave their jobs, drive to the station, and then take another truck to a scene. The Office of the State Fire Marshall requires departments to have at least three engines and a ladder on the scene of a structure fire.
“Our services could be better. We always could be better,” said Lowder. “But, we are going to always put resources on the scene.”
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