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County has volunteer shortage

April 19, 2000|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

Washington County's fire and rescue companies have 496 more volunteers than they had four years ago, but rescuers say they continue to face personnel shortages.

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Even with the additional personnel, "the numbers are still low," Jay Brandenburg, captain of the Boonsboro Fire Department, said.

He said some companies are so short-staffed that they have had to hire paid employees, resulting in added costs for salaries.

Other companies "are making do" but could provide more services if they had more volunteers, Brandenburg said.

"The need for volunteers is extremely urgent at this point," he said.

"Our survival ultimately depends on a steady amount of volunteers," he said.

To recruit and retain volunteers, the Fire and Rescue Association and individual companies have mounted recruitment efforts.

Some say incentives such as a $3,500 state tax deduction for six years or more of service and to the Length of Service Awards Program, which provides retirement benefits after 25 years of service, have helped fire and rescue companies recruit and retain volunteers.

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Others say humanitarian concerns and recruitment efforts by the association and its 31 departments are the primary reason volunteers sign up.

In 1996, the year the association began keeping countywide records of number of volunteers, Washington County had 1,163 fire and rescue volunteers. That number increased by three - to 1,166 - in 1997 and rose in 1998 to 1,517. In 1999, there were 1,659 volunteers, according to association figures.

Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association President Jay Grimes attributes the increase to the Length of Service Awards Program, or LOSAP.

"The program will help us get people and, more importantly, help us retain people," Grimes said.

He estimated that the average volunteer sticks with it for about five to seven years before "burning out."

Incentives like the tax credit and LOSAP are their reward for staying around, he said.

Despite the incentives, and recruitment efforts that include billboards, television commercials and open houses, "they're still not pouring through the doors," said Grimes.

To lure volunteers, the association is considering a "paid on-call system" under which volunteers would receive $5 for every call they go out on, he said.

Volunteers are needed for more than just fighting fires and performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

People are needed to handle paperwork, work at carnivals and make food for bake sales and other fund-raisers, he said.

Working against the Fire and Rescue Association's recruitment and retention efforts are increasing demands for training, coupled with obligations to family and full-time jobs, he said.

"It's never going to be easy to get good volunteers to stick around," said Grimes.

The retirement and tax deduction programs are incentives, agreed Clear Spring Fire Department Deputy Chief Gary Mariotti. He said new members have asked questions about the program and its criteria.

At first, new members might not fully understand the significance of LOSAP and the $3,500 tax deduction, but over time they realize its benefits, he said.

"It's prompted a little more interest and helped retain volunteers," he said.

Tax write-offs and retirement programs don't tend to be the main draw for younger volunteers, Brandenburg said. The desire to reach out to those in need should be the underlying motivation, he said.

"It shouldn't be because you want to ride a fire engine but because you want to help," said Brandenburg.

Current incentive programs aren't "solving the problem but are allowing us to keep quality people," he said.

The personnel shortage places a greater burden on the volunteers, who must do more work to compensate, he said.

Brandenburg said some volunteers are more active than others when it comes to responding to calls and helping out where needed.

Christy Shawen said she joined the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway in 1999 because she wanted to help others. She didn't base her decision on tax deductions and retirement recruitment programs but considers them "an added benefit," she said.

"They're both excellent programs, but I'm not sure that they are a large attraction," said Williamsport Ambulance Company Deputy Chief David Hays.

Williamsport has trouble finding personnel to handle overnight shifts because many of its members don't live in town, he said.

Hays said he considers Williamsport fortunate because the company has 86 active volunteers, more than many other companies, he said.

"We have a large volunteer base because we are a very busy company and offer a lot of different services," Hays said.

The ambulance company went on 1,650 calls in 1999, he said.

Maugansville-Goodwill Fire Chief Phil Ridenour said volunteer numbers for his company generally follow a pattern of highs and lows.

"We are doing extremely well now, but that could just be a phase," he said. He said he anticipates losing volunteers when summer arrives, as people go on vacations or get involved in outdoor activities.

His company adds to association recruitment incentives by periodically waiving a $2 initiation fee.

Maugansville also has a competition among members to bring in volunteers. The member who recruits the most volunteers who stay active receives $100, he said.

Ridenour, who has been a firefighter for more than 20 years, said the shortage of volunteers has been a problem for years.

"We can never have enough volunteers," he said.

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