Not only is a shortage of volunteers impacting fire departments in rural areas of Surry County, it also is having an effect on the Mount Airy Fire Department in terms of assisting with incidents outside the city limits.
“We’re getting more and more requests to go out in the county and assist volunteer fire departments, especially during the daytime,” Mount Airy Fire Chief Zane Poindexter said during a recent meeting of the city Public Safety Committee. That group gathers quarterly to discuss fire and police issues.
Poindexter cited one recent high-profile case in which city firefighters responded to an out-of-town situation. It involved a July 24 blaze on Starr Memory Trail where the remains of a young man who lived there were discovered afterward and sparked a homicide investigation.
“We were one of the first ones there,” Poindexter said of the presence of Mount Airy personnel at that site just off U.S. 52 north of the city.
He added that Mount Airy had assisted volunteer firefighters in neighboring areas of the county on multiple working house or other structure fires just outside town during the past quarter. The chief specifically mentioned incidents in the Franklin and Four-Way fire districts.
This includes offering at least one fire engine and three or four on-duty department members to aid the out-of-town units during daytime hours.
Poindexter said efforts are made to ensure that the city is adequately protected during those periods.
But the Mount Airy fire official was quick to add that the Franklin, Four-Way and other volunteer fire departments are equally cooperative in assisting at the scenes of fires within Mount Airy whenever summoned.
“They provide us a lot of help,” he said.
In response to a question from Commissioner Dean Brown about whether the municipality is reimbursed for what it provides outside town, Poindexter said Mount Airy likely comes out ahead in the mutual-aid equation.
“They probably come into the city more than we go into the county,” he said of volunteer personnel.
“Our thoughts are, as much help as they provide us throughout the year, we should give back to them when we can without depleting our city resources at the same time.”
The Mount Airy fire chief said the fact the city increasingly is lending a firefighting hand outside its boundaries reflects a troubling trend surrounding traditionally all-volunteer fire departments.
“It’s not like it used to be — the days of the volunteer firefighter are gone,” Poindexter said. “Volunteerism is dramatically on the decrease…and these departments just don’t have the personnel available, especially during the daytime, to combat a house fire.”
Devoting one’s time to battling a blaze in the middle of the night is demanding enough, with the ongoing training requirements for volunteers also an issue, he explained.
“Also, a lot of their employers can’t let them leave work like they used to,” Poindexter said of the situation particularly facing those with demanding day jobs.
A 2007 breakdown showed there were about 100 less volunteers throughout the county’s 19 fire districts than in 1989, which Surry County Fire Marshal Doug Jones described then as nearing a “crisis, or near-crisis, level.”
The situation has only worsened since.
Earlier this year, it was reported that two volunteer fire departments, Franklin and South Surry, were resorting to paying part-time firefighters.
During county budget workshops in April and May, some other departments asked the county commissioners for an increase in their district tax rates because they might have to add a paid worker, too.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.