Fire chiefs looking to grants for help in recruiting volunteers

By Joe Beck

The Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue is about to get some help in its efforts to overcome a shortage of volunteers.

The department is one of 14 chosen throughout the state for participation in a federally funded program designed to help increase volunteer firefighter recruitment.

Departments throughout the state and nation have reported increasing difficulty in finding recruits in recent years. Officials cite increased pressure on people’s time and a weak economy forcing many to work more hours at one or more jobs as among the principal reasons for the shortage.

Shenandoah County Fire Chief Gary Yew said the program will allow the department to focus recruitment efforts on those segments of the population most likely to be interested in volunteering.

“What the program provides us is something we traditionally have never had, some very good demographic data,” Yew said.

Yew cited those with an interest in hunting and fishing as examples of the kind of people most likely to respond to recruitment overtures. The data provided through the program will make it easier for the department to identify where such people shop. The department’s recruiters would then use the information to establish partnerships with local businesses in reaching customers who may also be potential volunteers.

“It allows us to target individuals instead of using a broad bush approach,” Yew said.

Yew said volunteer membership in Shenandoah County has fallen to slightly more than 300, about 15 percent fewer than when he became chief in 2002. The department’s total number of firefighters and EMTs is about 450, he said.

Chief Richard Mabie in Warren County said he has the same concerns about finding and keeping volunteers.

Mabie said much of Warren County’s population endures long commutes to and from the Washington area. That leaves little spare time for the unpredictable demands of fighting fires.

“It’s a time-consuming business,” Mabie said. “It’s not over at 8 when you finish training, because at 10 p.m. you may get another call that will keep you out for a couple hours.”

Mabie said his department recently launched an initiative with some local business that offer discounts on meals and others goods and service to volunteers who are on duty or in uniform.

He said the department is also planning to apply for a federal grant that offers money for hiring career firefighters and also help in recruiting and retaining volunteers.

The grant to Shenandoah County, announced on July 1, is already making a difference, Yew said. One of the fire companies recently recruited some volunteers at an ice cream social, Yew said.

“I think the people are out there,” Yew said, “and that’s the emphasis behind this kind of program, Targeting the right kind of people, that’s not something we’ve done a good job of in the past.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com