Fewer volunteer firemen

Published 10:00 am Friday, February 24, 2012

Franklin Fire Department Volunteer Capt. John Friis climbs atop FFD's Engine 1 to retrieve hoses for testing. -- Dale Liesch | TIDEWATER NEWS

FRANKLIN—Franklin Fire and Rescue volunteer Capt. John Friis is one of those people who, in his own words, never grew up.

That’s how the Navy veteran describes his yearning for a career as a firefighter.

“The first fire truck I ever rode was in 1969,” Friis said. “After that, it was set.”

Friis is one of 21 volunteers at the Franklin station, an all-time low for the department, said volunteer Capt. Susan Keeter.

The department also has four paid firefighters on duty per shift, but Deputy Chief Mark Carr said he would like to have at least 40 volunteers to supplement the paid staff.

Keeter said the main reason for the loss of volunteers from a high point of 50 in the 1980s is the 2010 closure of International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill.

“We are probably at the lowest we’ve ever been,” said Keeter. “Most of it is due to the mill.”

Keeter explained that former mill shift workers made up a majority of volunteers at the station, and many of those former volunteers are now working out of town.

Friis, who works as a civilian fire captain at Norfolk Naval Base, said the decrease in volunteerism from its heyday could also be attributed to increased training regulations that require a firefighter or EMT to receive at least six months and in many cases up to a year of training.

“Rules and regulations have changed so much since then,” Friis said. “Before, you could volunteer and be on a truck within a few days, but now you have to be certified to a national standard to do anything.”

The training requirement discourages busy, would-be volunteers, Friis said. To be an active volunteer, an individual must complete the required training and work at least two 12-hour shifts in a month.

Franklin is not the only department burdened by low volunteerism in Western Tidewater; departments in Branchville and Sedley are also feeling the pinch.

Branchville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Justin Overby said the department has been seeing a dropoff in members for about three years, but he added that the biggest drop came with the closure of the mill and the loss of shift employees as volunteers.

“Daytime shifts are the hardest to fill because people are now working 8-to-5 jobs,” Overby said.

Branchville’s all-volunteer department has 10 to 20 members, but Overby would like to see 30 to 35.

“A few more active members would be good,” Overby said.

Chief Keith Rose said the Sedley Volunteer Fire Department has plenty of volunteers, but a lot of them work during the day, which hurts the department when calls come in during business hours.

Rose attributed this to the closure of the mill and a loss of shift employment there.

“It’s kind of hurting us in the daytime,” Rose said.

In all, Sedley has 42 volunteers on its roster.

Newsoms Volunteer Fire Chief Larry Fowler said his department has 30 full volunteers and eight junior volunteers ages 18 and under.

“We’re not down in volunteers,” Fowler said. “We’re holding on to what we have.”

He credited a program at Southampton High School that allows students to work toward fire college credits through Paul D. Camp Community College.

“When they are out of school, they are good to go,” Fowler said of training requirements. “We don’t have to train them.”

Fowler said he would like to see more volunteers and younger volunteers at the department, though.

Newsoms also benefits from five professional firefighters who volunteer at the department when not on shift for the cities of Suffolk and Chesapeake, Fowler said.

Franklin Fire Department volunteer Adam Tuck, whose full-time job is with Terry Holloman Farms in Newsoms, said he would like to gain the experience needed for a career as a full-time firefighter.

“To start with, I was interested in it,” Tuck said.