Ask a room full of kids what they want to be when they grow up and a number are bound to answer “firefighter.” Yet when people reach adulthood, firefighting is seldom their chosen path.
That may be, in part, due to the role’s volunteer status, which requires much more than just signing up and showing up.
“While the firefighters and EMTs need the level of training that is offered and required, it’s a drain on the member. The member has to be highly committed to complete the training,” says Bryan Ebling, director of the Caroline County Department of Emergency Services.
The National Fire Protection Association sets the standard for the number of firefighters needed on the scene: minimum response requires six personnel arriving within 14 minutes 80 percent of the time, in a rural area.
Thus far, local fire companies have been able to maintain this standard, yet all are recruiting new faces.
“Talbot, like other counties, is struggling with a decrease in volunteerism, however the recruitment and retention program (of the Talbot County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association) has seen results,” says Clay Stamp, director of the Talbot County Department of Emergency Services and chairman of the Maryland Emergency Medical Services Board. That effort was started in 2014.
In Caroline, “Volunteers are welcome in any of our stations throughout the county at any time,” Ebling says.
He says none of the county’s fire companies are in a crisis situation at the moment, but there is a need, particularly for daytime help.
“Thirty years ago, people could leave their jobs and respond on a fire call. Today, they cannot. Employers seldom allow people to leave their job for that type of service,” Ebling says. “Times have just changed … and we, the volunteer fire service, have had to adapt to that.”
The problem is eased somewhat when local volunteers are also able to serve as career fire service members in locations which offer paid positions, Ebling says.
There are also recruitment incentives for those who are interested in volunteering, says Scott Haas, director of the Queen Anne’s County Department of Emergency Services.
Topping the list of perks are tax credits and education. “If they start in the service, there’s a grant program through the state for tuition reimbursement,” Haas says. “There’s all kinds of pluses about volunteering and a lot of good things you can get out of it, if people are interested in investing their time in it. You’re not just giving your time away, you definitely get something in return.”
There are also less tangible rewards, as Ebling points out: “In the volunteer service, it’s not just extinguishing fires or responding to heart attacks — there’s the family camaraderie that comes with it. It’s a group of people that care about each other and their families, and they help each other out, on duty and off duty.”
To become certified as a volunteer firefighter, training is held at the Upper Eastern Shore Regional Training Center in Centreville, where classroom courses are held and a burn building and other fire props are kept for hands-on practice.
Firefighters have the opportunity to complete their emergency medical technician training, as well.
“If you’re a member of a volunteer fire company, your company can sponsor you and you can go through the EMT course that the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute puts on at no cost,” Stamp says.
Others may choose emergency medical services as a career track and take their training through a community college such as Chesapeake, which requires tuition, but is often reimbursed.
Regardless of how you choose to complete it, “On the emergency medical side, it is a huge commitment. You have over 200 hours of additional training just to get on an ambulance. And then, if you seek the higher levels of certification, which in Maryland is cardiac rescue technician or paramedic, you’re talking at least a minimum of two years at a community college to complete the courses to get state licensed,” Haas says.
Putting in the time and effort does pay off, as EMTs and especially paramedics are in high demand. “There is a statewide shortage on EMS providers,” Haas says. “A person with certification has no problem finding employment. And the higher your certification is, the more in demand you are.”
Stamp agrees it is becoming challenging, but work is being done to change that, particularly by stirring interest in high schoolers and recent graduates.
“One of the things that I think has been a great addition is getting community colleges to step up and provide a two-year associate degree process so that people can go to college out of high school. Even in high school, there is a process to take some of the classes before graduation,” Stamp says. “But to be able to take kids in school and say ‘here’s a career track’ … has been great on the career side for opening the door to new groups of people.”
Stamp says his goal as an emergency services manager is to create an open environment that everyone feels they can be part of.
“In order to be totally effective, we need to replicate our community and open the door to all populations,” Stamp says.
To further that mission, the department attends career days and offers internships where local high schoolers can ride along and observe.
For more information on emergency medical services or the volunteer fire service, visit your county’s emergency services department website.
Most individual fire companies also have websites, often with recruitment videos and easily accessible applications.