Northwest Georgia volunteer firefighters dwindle in number

Nearing the end of his 40-plus years as a volunteer firefighter in Walker County, Georgia, Skeet Gribble was visiting the community in rural Alabama where he was planning to move after retirement.

He was traveling with his son, Cody, also a volunteer firefighter in Walker County.

Fire stations in the northeast Alabama community of Gaylesville are served by mostly volunteer fire departments -- just like Walker County was for much of Gribble’s career.

Firefighting has always been a part of his life, and Gribble said he signed on to serve the day he turned 18. The part he loves, Gribble said, is helping his community and the appreciation, whether it’s someone who was bleeding to death, having a cardiac arrest, trapped in a burning house or who fell at home.

“The thing that means the most to me is that little bit of gratitude you get by looking at their face and seeing that smile, or the ones that come by and say, ‘Hey, we appreciate what you guys do,’” Gribble said in an interview.

The advantage of volunteer fire departments is cost, Gribble said, and having every station staffed by career or full-time firefighters would be a burden on taxpayers. More training is required for volunteers these days, Gribble said, and that time commitment makes it harder to find people to serve.

Recruiting enough volunteer firefighters is a problem in both Walker County and throughout the nation, Walker County Fire Chief Blake Hodge said. Eleven of Walker County’s 18 fire stations are staffed by volunteers in coordination with the seven staffed by career firefighters who take shifts at the station so they can be available 24 hours a day, he said.

“We rely on our volunteers, and we need more of ‘em,” Hodge said. “But like everybody else, it is a challenge these days.”

Training costs for volunteers are paid by the county, Hodge said. In addition to a small stipend paid to the volunteers per call, Walker County pays the dues for their state pensions.

Hodge said some volunteer stations have no volunteers and others have only one volunteer. Walker County Fire Rescue has about 22 volunteer firefighters right now -- and ideally, he said, the county would have five volunteers available to report at each station, or 55 total.

The Naomi community’s Station 13 is the most active volunteer station, Hodge said, with five or six members. If a call comes in near Station 13, the career station will start responding until the volunteer station can send a fire truck.

Some calls, like a large structure fire, require a response from multiple career and volunteer stations, but Hodge said support will be dispatched in other circumstances, too.

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“If (volunteers) need help -- they’re status one (meaning) if it’s one person going as a volunteer, we’ll always send another truck,” Hodge said. “We don’t like anybody being out there by themselves.”

Firefighters in Walker County respond to emergency calls, including in-home falls and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, vehicle wrecks and fires. About 75% to 80% of the calls are medical, Hodge said, and the increase in medical calls as well as population growth has required several county stations to be staffed by full-time firefighters.

Hodge said department leadership has to increase recruitment through social media, signs and ideas from both state and national firefighting organizations. He said he thinks the lack of volunteers is a part of changing times.

“In a rural setting, in North Georgia especially, it’s a different time we’re in,” Hodge said. “A lot of people are working two jobs, or kids are playing travel ball ... There’s not enough hours in the day to maintain the training -- not to mention it’s a dangerous job.”

Nearby counties are moving to more career firefighters, too, Hodge said. Whitfield County is down to hardly any volunteer firefighters; Catoosa County is down to 20-something volunteers, while Gordon County is down to 15 or 20, Hodge said. Dade and Chattooga counties are completely volunteer with a few paid staff, he said.

Brian Dedmon, Catoosa County Fire Department battalion chief and volunteer firefighter coordinator, said the department has about 20 volunteer firefighters now and isn’t training any more right now. The county’s fire department has 70 full-time firefighters, and Dedmon said the county is fully staffed.

Officials from Trenton-Dade County Fire could not be reached for comment.

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In Chattooga County, John King, department chief for Gore Fire, said more training and high call volume has been a challenge for the county’s mostly volunteer fire department. Only Summerville has any full-time firefighters, while the other nine departments in the county are all volunteers. Ten years ago, King said, there were about 200 firefighters; now the county is down to 80. King said those who stay on find firefighting very rewarding.

Hodge agreed firefighting is a hands-on, high-stress, dangerous job -- and he acknowledged fire officials are asking a lot of volunteers. Despite the challenges, Hodge said he started as a volunteer firefighter right after high school and has “loved every minute” of his career.

On a visit to his retirement home in Alabama, Gribble stopped by a volunteer fire station and asked a firefighter backing in a truck if they needed any help.

Gribble said his only plan is to volunteer with that station after he moves, but he also said he’s the kind of person who, if something’s needed and he’s able to help out, that’s what he’ll wind up doing.


Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press

Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press

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