It’s a worst-case scenario - a home in rural Warren County catches fire, and by the time it’s over, the family has lost everything because firefighters were unable to arrive in time to keep the blaze from spreading.
The nine volunteer fire departments serving Warren County work to prevent that scenario from happening, but the changing economic and social landscape presents them with challenges that didn’t exist years ago.
According to several reports, the National Volunteer Fire Council claims that 73 percent of the firefighters in the United States are volunteers, but the number of volunteers nationwide has decreased each year.
Hadley Fire Chief Russell Justice has been a volunteer for 30 years, serving as Hadley’s chief for 29 years. In that time, he has seen the local economy shift gradually from agricultural to one more reliant on white-collar professionals, which has had the effect of longer commutes from work to home, diminishing the pool of recruits for his department.
“A lot of people used to farm, and that’s where we could recruit and train new volunteers,” Justice said. “Now everyone is taking care of their families, both the men and women have jobs. It’s hard for people to make runs during the day because they’re at work.”
Justice said his department still has several volunteers who farm during the day, and he is helped by the fact that many of the other volunteers with day jobs work in the district. Nonetheless, recruiting is a challenge.
Other challenges volunteer fire departments face are of an economic nature.
For instance, Warren County Fiscal Court is responsible for purchasing fire engines for the county’s volunteer departments, and also picks up the cost of maintenance and utilities at each station. The fire departments, meanwhile, are responsible for paying for equipment, tankers and training.
Fire department revenue comes from county tax money, and each department has set up a savings account to help make purchases. The departments also rely to varying degrees on the dues collected from residents living in each district.
Woodburn Fire Chief Bob Skipper said it is not mandatory to pay dues for the services of the local volunteer department, but the option to pay is available on property tax forms.
“We are fortunate to have nearly a 100 percent dues collection rate, so we don’t have to go out and try to collect it now,” Skipper said.
When Woodburn goes out on a run to a non-dues-paying household, the department bills the resident $250 for services rendered, Skipper said.
One of the biggest costs - and struggles - comes in training new recruits, Skipper said.
To become a certified volunteer firefighter in the state, a recruit has to undergo 150 hours of classroom and field training during the first year. Twenty hours of training in each subsequent year are necessary to maintain certification.
“Training requirements have greatly increased,” said Skipper, who joined the Woodburn department 20 years ago. “It’s more than just learning to put out a fire, you also have rescue and extrication training, learning how to handle hazardous materials, plus we have a lot more property to protect (in our district).”
Justice said that some people with day jobs who want to become volunteer firefighters are deterred by how much training is required for certification.
Indeed, recruiting, financial and training challenges face many volunteer fire departments nationwide, and those challenges are compounded by rising equipment costs.
Purchasing a fire truck with basic amenities costs between $160,000 and $180,000, Skipper said. His department recently put a $150,000 rescue truck in its fleet, and its newest fire engine was purchased about 10 years ago for $100,000.
Lots of departments scrape by with what money is available, but locally it may be early to call for paid staffers to be housed at the fire stations.
“I don’t know what the outcome will be over the next five years, and each department is different, but adding paid staff is something that may have to happen a few years down the road,” Justice said.
As it is, Kentucky volunteer firefighters are eligible for $400 in workers compensation per month for suffering a permanent disability in the line of duty. The surviving spouse of a volunteer who dies in the line of duty is eligible for a $75,000 lump sum payment, and funeral expenses are also paid by the state.
Some individual volunteer departments in the state have retirement benefit plans, but past efforts made by the Kentucky Firefighters Association to lobby for a statewide pension plan have fallen short.
“I’m about to turn 60, and as old as I am, my knees won’t let me go into (burning) houses, but I want to still make runs,” Justice said.