A tradition 'in danger of dying out' Volunteers: With their ranks in decline, volunteer fire companies are finding it tougher and tougher to attract and retain enough members.

March 25, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

RIDGELY -- As fire chief in a one-stoplight town on the Eastern Shore, Lou Hayes' top priority is keeping his company alive.

Fighting fires is only half of it. The most pressing danger is whether he'll find enough people to help out. Without new recruits, Ridgely's 95-year-old all-volunteer force could go the way of bucket brigades and horse-drawn wagons.

"When I joined the fire service, it was the only thing to do and the station was the social center of town," said Hayes, 50, a plumbing supply salesman. "Now, you're a young person, you stay home and play with your computer. There are a lot of other distractions."

From small towns such as Ridgely to the Baltimore suburbs and in communities across the nation, it's getting tougher and tougher for volunteer fire companies to attract and retain enough members.

It is a potentially serious issue. Although volunteer firefighters outnumber paid staff by a 3-1 ratio nationwide, their ranks have been in decline, falling from 884,600 in 1983 to 795,400 in 1993.

The reasons behind the trend are numerous; the consequences expensive -- or worse. With fewer volunteers to man ambulances or firetrucks, lives are put at risk. A growing number of communities have elected to pay for full-time staff rather than face long waits for help in critical emergencies.

"Longer waits mean somebody may die or suffer injury to a greater extent," said Donald D. Flinn, a volunteer fire chief in Silver Spring. "Think about it: The fire call blows, and nobody responds."

Three years ago, the issue became a hot one for Ridgely and many of its neighboring towns in rural Caroline County. Ridgely "scratched" -- failed to answer an ambulance call -- about once a week, and the call had to be referred to other stations miles away.

The solution was to hire emergency medical technicians to respond to daytime calls countywide, an arrangement financed by billing health insurers. For the first time, the volunteers had to admit they couldn't do the job without paid help.

"It was a career solution to a volunteer problem, and it chips away at the volunteer system," said Bryan C. Ebling, Ridgely's president. "But we couldn't let our pride stand in the way of our responsibilities."

It is not hard to gather similar stories from the estimated 35,000 volunteers who work in Maryland's 362 volunteer fire companies. Even departments with excellent response times and zero scratches are hearing complaints from overworked volunteers.

"All people know is that if they pick up the phone and dial 911, somebody will be there," said Bernard J. Smith, president of the Lansdowne Volunteer Fire Department.

"They don't know what it takes to make it happen," Smith said.

Family tradition

Historically, fire halls have been a small town's focal point, the spot where families gathered for annual chicken dinners, held wedding receptions and conducted Cub Scout meetings. Even small-town departments rarely went begging for help: The sons of volunteers could always be counted on to uphold a family tradition.

But in a mobile society with single-parent families, longer commutes, shallow-rooted bedroom communities and fewer blue-collar, shift-work jobs, volunteer fire companies must actively seek new members.

And those who do show up at the fire stations are confronted with far greater demand for training and more pressure to raise money for the organization.

"It's easier to find someone who wants to rescue people than run bingo," said Robert E. Knippenburg, a volunteer in Midland, a small town in Allegany County.

It doesn't help that many of the predominantly white and male organizations have in the past barred minorities and women from joining. Even those who claim to have stopped that practice often do little to actively improve diversity.

"Most firefighters and rescue workers still look like each other and not like the communities they serve," said Eileen Cackowski, deputy director of the governor's office on volunteerism.

Mistaken assumption

As suburbs expand, the people who move beyond the cities often assume fire stations are government institutions and would never think to get involved.

Yet in 18 of Maryland's 23 counties, most ambulance and fire calls are handled by volunteers who are funded primarily by private donations.

In Ridgely, a department with 40 active members must be able to handle more than 150 fire and 500 ambulance calls across 25 square miles each year. Thanks to the paid emergency medical technicians and some new members who are professional firefighters by night and Ridgely volunteers by day, scratch calls are no longer an issue.

But keeping those new members is not so easy.

Younger volunteers such as Ronald M. Dixon, a deputy sheriff and a Ridgely volunteer lieutenant, are often caught up with outside responsibilities -- for example, raising a 2-year-old daughter.

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