Sylva Fire Department officers

By Beth Lawrence 

 

The United States is experiencing a shortage of volunteer firefighters; Jackson County is no exception.

The shortage is not sudden, said County Commissioner Brian McMahan, a volunteer firefighter for nearly 24 years. McMahan serves the Balsam-Willets-Ochre Hill District.

Over the years he has seen fewer applicants each year and more people who are already volunteering leave.

“It is a huge issue,” McMahan said. “Every department in the United States that is volunteer, and there might be some rare exception, every one is facing issues with recruitment and retention.”

McMahan believes one issue impacting volunteerism is time.

“People today are busier than they’ve ever been,” he said. “A lot of people are working more hours; they’re working multiple jobs. Their time is occupied with a lot of other activities that consume their lives.”

Being a volunteer firefighter requires a time commitment beyond showing up to put out a house fire.

At a minimum firefighters must complete 36 hours of state mandated training each year. The number could rise if departments decide they need or want more training to be as prepared as possible. That training could involve traveling to other regions or local exercises and classes.

Training hours could reach as high as 80 to 100 hours, McMahan said.

Additionally, training standards are more strenuous. There is more to learn about fighting modern fires fueled by foams, plastics, chemicals and other items found in modern homes and vehicles. Those substances are often more combustible, create hazardous situations for firefighters and sometimes require specialized knowledge about containment and suppression. That knowledge requires more training.

“A traditional house built 50 years ago burns different; it burns slower,” McMahan said. “It doesn’t produce the kind of toxic fumes and gasses that are produced today. Today’s modern construction is a much more dangerous environment.”

Firefighters also must answer medical calls or respond to traffic accidents which also require specialized training such as knowing how to defuse air bags, deal with hazardous chemicals or issues such as COVID-19.

The N.C. Department of Insurance and the state Fire Marshal’s Office require fire departments to maintain a certain number of trained firefighters based on district size and other factors.

“If you fall below those numbers, you lose your certification as a department,” he said. “Then you have to try and resolve it, or it could potentially cause you to have to close the department down.”

Fewer firefighters lead to limited response and greater response times.

Closing stations leaves communities without coverage in some districts. That could create new problems for the county and its residents.

“That would mean possibly a paid department,” McMahan said.

Speaking as a commissioner, McMahan said a paid department would mean increased taxes.

“Most counties already have a fire tax; we have one department in this county that is funded by fire tax,” he said. “If we were to move to some other arrangement whereby we had to pay for full-time personnel at other departments, either we’d have to create a service district that would be countywide and add to the tax base to fund those employees, or you go to the traditional fire district. Each district would have its own tax rate based upon the need and based upon the values of property in that district.”

That tax rate could vary greatly by district.

The county also needs younger volunteers because the job is so physically demanding.

Older generations continue to volunteer simply to keep the required number of bodies on the roster and maintain certification, but older members may not necessarily have the stamina to hike into rugged terrain for a rescue or fight a large fire, McMahan said. 

Jackson County has seven fire departments. Six departments are all volunteer with one county-paid fire coordinator at each. Cashiers-Glenville is the only department with a paid staff, but even that department is supplemented by volunteers.