Hagerstown Fire Chief W. Kyd Dieterich remembers times about 30 to 40 years ago when volunteer firefighters almost had to compete to go out to a fire.
"My gosh, I can remember on meeting night if there was a fire call, if you weren't quick about it, you wouldn't get a seat on the firetruck," said Dieterich, who was a volunteer firefighter at two area fire companies back then.
"But now, if there's a fire call on meeting night, there might not be one single person in the station, volunteer-wise, who might be able to go," he said. "And, that's not a criticism of them. There's so many reasons of how and why it got to that point."
"That point" is this situation nowadays:
- None of the members Western Enterprise Fire Co. has recruited, trained and outfitted over the years has gone to fight a fire in more than four years, according to Dieterich's study of volunteer response records; and
- None of the members South Hagerstown Fire Co. has recruited, trained and outfitted has gone on a fire alarm in two years, Dieterich said.
Nevertheless, Dieterich's way of counting volunteer firefighters at each station makes no sense to James Schaffer, a former volunteer firefighter who has been the president of Western Enterprise since at least 1998.
Schaffer said his company's members probably include about 12 to 15 volunteer firefighters. "Almost everyone who is a member of our company is a member of the city's other companies, so why does it matter which company the firefighters come from?" Schaffer asked.
"Why in hell are we calling it a city fire company if you have to be members of individual fire companies?" Schaffer asked.
But Dieterich, who said he knows of many city volunteer firefighters who don't belong to Western Enterprise, said Schaffer is missing the point.
The chief said the city has only 47 volunteer firefighters now, making it more important for each of the six volunteer companies to recruit more. He said that in counting volunteer responses, he lists the firefighter with the station that first recruited him or her, gave training and bought his or her protective clothing.
"People say, well, you've got all these volunteers. And really, we don't," Dieterich said. "Over the years, it has shrunk to where it is today, where it is a shadow of where it used to be."
Dieterich said it doesn't add to the city's paid and volunteer firefighting crew if instead of recruiting more volunteers, a company just wants credit for the efforts of associate members, who are home members elsewhere.
He said Western Enterprise is to be praised for remodelling its fire station as a useful place for city fire apparatus, a paid city crew of firefighters and as a West Hagerstown base for Community Rescue Service. The fire company lets CRS use the space for free.
But the chief said the city needs more volunteer firefighters and so, he needs each of the volunteer fire companies in the city to recruit more. That's especially important in Western Enterprise's territory in the city's West End because it has more fire calls than any other city station, he said.
As it is, if a paid city crew goes out to a fire and needs more manpower, but no volunteers respond, "we have to resort to calling for additional apparatus (from another fire station) just for the manpower," Dieterich said.
"If we don't put the boots on the ground, we don't get the job done," he said.