What if there was a fire, and nobody came to put it out?

    That scenario probably never will happen, but there is a real danger that some day there might not be enough people on hand to fight a fire quickly enough to avoid the loss of life or property.


    What if there was a fire, and nobody came to put it out?
    That scenario probably never will happen, but there is a real danger that some day there might not be enough people on hand to fight a fire quickly enough to avoid the loss of life or property.
    It is a concern for Kevin Wilson, president of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association. A volunteer fireman for 36 years, Wilson has seen both good and bad times when it comes to keeping departments fully manned with trained firefighters and emergency medical personnel.
     “The problem is that fire companies may have a lot of volunteers, but many may not be available because of work, vacations, military deployments and the like,” said Wilson, whose organization represents the more than 6,000 citizen firemen and firewomen in the state.
    There always are a set number of people available for cities with a paid fire company, such as in Wilmington, but that’s not the case for the volunteers, Wilson said. When a fire alarm sounds, a volunteer company sends out however many people are able to show up.
    If that’s not going to be enough to fight a particular fire, a call must go out to neighboring companies.
    “We never know, when that fire siren goes off, if we’ll be staffed fully,” Wilson said. “It’s one of those things we have absolutely no control over. It seems we’re always one person short.”
    To help keep their ranks filled as firefighters and medical service personnel throughout the state move on or retire, the DFVA is embarking on a campaign to recruit men and women as new members. Using a $398,000 federal grant, the group is sending out brochures, doing radio and television spots and public service ads in local cinemas.
    New blood is definitely needed to keep the rosters full, especially in a growing area such as Middletown, Odessa and Townsend, said Frank Bailey, chief of the Volunteer Hose Company of Middletown.
    “We’re probably one of the fastest growing areas in Delaware, and we have a mix of residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural areas,” Bailey said.
    The company has an aggressive recruitment program, partially aimed at the youth of the town, and also at new residents. Middletown’s firefighters recently opened a satellite fire station in the northern part of the town, and have run fire education camps in local schools to teach firefighting.
    Beginning at the age of 18, students have worked with actual fire equipment, to include air packs and fire hoses. Many who have attended the camps live closer to the satellite station at Summit Air Park than to the center of town, allowing them to respond that much more quickly to an emergency, Bailey said. Graduates of the camps also have joined the fire company as full fledged members once they reach 18, he said.
    “We’re a very fortunate fire company,” Bailey said. “We have fairly good manpower, we have a really good recruiting program and we can put our equipment on the street when it’s needed.”
    Although Middletown and Clayton are separated geographically, that doesn’t mean they don’t work together as needed. Because it borders New Castle County, Clayton’s fire district also extends into that county.
Company president John Pridemore said Clayton has a steady membership, primarily because of a strong sense of community in the town, which in turn breeds a strong sense of volunteerism.
    “It takes a special and unique kind of individual to do this type of job,” Pridemore said.
    To bring in new people, Clayton, like Middletown, offers a feeder program that helps interested young people learn more about the profession as they move through their teen years. They start out learning about the causes of fires and how to fight them, as well as helping out around the fire station. As time goes on, they get hands-on training until they’re old enough, at age 18, to become a full fledged member of the company.
    Recruiting new members has become a top priority, Pridemore said, so much so that five Clayton firefighters recently appeared in a recruiting video that will be playing in movie theaters across Delaware.
    There also are monetary inducements to becoming a Delaware firefighter, Wilson said. Although they’re volunteers, members of fire companies, as well as the various Ladies Auxiliaries, receive a state-sponsored pension after reaching age 60 if they have at least 10 years of service.
    “It’s not a lot, but it helps,” Wilson said. “We say, we can’t afford full-time fire departments, but if you volunteer your time, we’ll give you a pension. It’s our way of saying, ‘We want to keep you guys.’”
    Volunteer firefighters also receive $7,000 in funeral expenses, even if the death is not fire-related; workman’s compensation if injured in the line of duty; a $400 state tax credit; a $150,000 life insurance policy; and numerous other benefits.
    Wilson also notes those interested in volunteering at a fire station don’t necessarily have to jump on the back of a truck each time a call comes in.  Every fire station needs administrative help, people to help maintain the equipment and even volunteers to man displays at fundraising events.
    And despite its name, one doesn’t have to be a woman to belong to a company’s Ladies Auxiliary, he said. The auxiliaries perform a vital function in helping with fundraisers and dinners, and perhaps most importantly, provides food and drink to weary firefighters at the scene of a fire.
    Wilson urges people, especially teens, to consider volunteering with their local fire department.
    “We have many young members, and after a few years you can see a change in them,” he said. “Their attitude changes toward their community based on what they’ve been taught their experiences and from being involved in something much bigger than they are.”
    “It really is the ultimate in community service.”
    To learn more about becoming a volunteer firefighter, call the DVFA at 302-535-3985, or 800-FIRELINE. Information also is available at local fire departments.