Recruits respond to fire department's call

April 17, 2005|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,SUN STAFF

In search of new experiences and meaning in her life, Becky Tims decided to become a volunteer with the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department.

"I've been a wife and mother, I've worked in an office 25 years, I've never done anything physical like this," said Tims, 45, of Sykesville. "I'm afraid of heights, I'm claustrophobic, I freeze up - if somebody tells me to run, they'll have to carry me out."

Her decision to volunteer came after participating in the department's Firefighter Fantasy Weekend - "not only to challenge myself but also find out what kind of person it takes to get outside their comfort zone to do this," she said.

After struggling into 40 to 50 pounds of firefighter gear, climbing ladders, standing in a burning building and using rescue equipment on a mangled car, Tims felt enough confidence to sign up as a volunteer.

"I want to do hazmat cleanup and rescue support," she said, after being drawn by the action of several accidents and medical calls during a recent weekend. "It was the experience of a lifetime. I'm going to give myself six months and see what happens."

The Firefighter Fantasy Weekend was the culmination of an intensive six-month recruitment campaign, "Who Will Answer the Call?" by Sykesville to see whether an aggressive effort would bring in more volunteers.

"We had a tremendous response," said Bill Rehkopf, Sykesville's public information officer and the force behind the campaign. "We set a goal of 25 new members, and we're at 36 and counting."

Of those 36, nine are in an Emergency Medical Services class and 13 in firefighting class, said Ed Ruch Sr., Sykesville's fire chief.

The rest plan to do fund raising or administrative tasks.

The campaign ran from Fire Prevention Week in October to the Firefighter Fantasy Weekend earlier this month. The department posted large banners at the station, launched a new Web site, sponsored a screening of the movie Ladder 49 and visited the Eldersburg Home Depot and Wal-Mart with equipment, demonstrations, information and membership applications.

The fantasy weekend, where the public was invited to live the life of a firefighter over two days, attracted five women and two men, including Tims' son, Justin, 20. They spent Saturday morning at the Carroll County Fire Training Center in Westminster learning firefighter basics, then stayed that night at the firehouse.

To launch the campaign as a countywide pilot, Sykesville officials asked the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association, which represents firefighters and other emergency services personnel, for $2,000 last fall.

"One stipulation from the county association was for us to come back in May with a report, and I will tell them this is something every department in this county can do," Rehkopf said.

In the past decade, voluntarism has dropped to the point that many companies started hiring paid personnel to staff their stations as the number of calls rose.

In more recent years, CCVESA pushed the county for funding for round-the-clock EMS and emergency vehicle staffing.

"It's the amount of calls: We didn't have the volunteers and we couldn't guarantee the service," said Leon Fleming, CCVESA liaison to the county commissioners. "That's the only way we could guarantee the service to the people was to go to paid personnel."

Figures from the Carroll County Office of Public Safety show an increase in dispatched incidents from 10,728 in 1994 to 15,104 last year. A breakdown in that 10-year period showed fire calls up from 2,031 to 2,401; rescue calls up from 961 to 1,147; and EMS calls up from 6,079 to 9,510.

Fleming estimated that between 700 and 800 active volunteers answer calls, and that another 500 help with fund raising and administrative duties.

No figures were available on the number of volunteers in the county 10 years ago.

"We've been needing volunteers for years - with everybody working dual jobs, long commutes and families, people don't have the time," Ruch said. "The way the community is growing, we're getting busier and busier."

In 1994, Sykesville responded to 704 fire calls and 1,235 EMS calls. Last year, the station ran almost 800 fire calls and 2,000 EMS calls, Rehkopf said.

The word is already out on Sykesville's success with the recruitment campaign.

"Westminster talked about it at our last meeting, and we're going to look into doing something to bring in new people and keep the people we already have viable," said Jeff Alexander, assistant fire chief at Westminster fire company.

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