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NC fire departments, including Wake County Fire Services, need more volunteer firefighters.
For three generations, over the span of 97 years, the Stephenson family has seen its members serve as volunteer firefighters in Wake County. Inspired by his father before him, Bill Stephenson—who works an 8-to-5 job when he’s not volunteering—has served with the Northern Wake Fire Department for three decades. Bill’s son, Thomas Stephenson, is a professional firefighter with the Town of Apex and volunteers at Northern Wake as well.
“I’m kind of an old guy in this business,” Bill says of volunteering. “I’m around a lot of younger people and I tell all of them, this is the greatest job in the world.”
According to research from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 72 percent of firefighters in North Carolina are volunteer firefighters. Unfortunately, the number of volunteer firefighters in the state is declining by 11 to 12 percent year over year, including in Wake County, which is one of 12 counties in the state targeted by the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs (NCAFC) for a two-year-long volunteer firefighter recruitment campaign.
“Local volunteers provide the bedrock of North Carolina’s firefighter workforce,” said chief Tracy Mosley, a program manager at NCAFC. “We understand that the safety of our communities relies on fully staffed and trained departments, and based on the success of past campaigns, we’re eager [to transform] our state’s volunteer fire service landscape.”
The COVID pandemic has dealt another blow to fire departments. This summer, local officials declined to fund 20 new Raleigh firefighter positions at a cost of $2.4 million. And fire departments across the county, including Wake Forest’s, have seen their ranks depleted as firefighters have had to isolate after contracting the coronavirus. This, coupled with the training and time commitment it takes to become certified as a volunteer firefighter, has made it a less attractive option for potential volunteers over time.
“The dynamic has changed from 20 or 30 years ago,” Thomas Stephenson acknowledges.
But, the Stephensons say, there are plenty of perks to volunteering beyond a small stipend and equipment fees that the county pays for. Volunteer firefighters are trained to the same standards as professionals and many find the experience to be rewarding, a way to make a direct, tangible difference in their communities and a meaningful impact on the lives of their neighbors.
“Starting with the camaraderie at the fire station— you have other individuals that form a team, a crew,” says Bill. “You eat together, train together, wash vehicles together, do station maintenance, cleaning, all the non-glorious things. The actual fire call is a very small part of this. We’ve answered calls about everything possible, from vehicle accidents to incidents on the lake, to actual fires in residential homes in Wake, snake bites—all types of emergency scenarios.”
North Carolina’s two-year recruitment and retention campaign is part of the state’s Volunteer Workforce Solutions program and is designed to help the state’s fire departments achieve a viable, sustainable volunteer workforce. With funding provided by FEMA, the campaign is targeting 15 at-risk fire department groups across 12 counties in North Carolina’s east, west and Piedmont regions.
“Volunteerism, still, is quite simply dollars and cents,” says Bill. “A volunteer firefighter is a taxpayer’s best friend. Whenever you answer a 911 call, your goal is to make a perfect stranger’s day better. That’s why it is still a thrill for me to do this job.”
To learn more about volunteer firefighting in North Carolina, visit VolunteerFireNC.org.
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