(TNS) - State officials are working to help fire departments recruit and retain volunteers, clear up a backlog of inspections and work harder investigating arson cases, according to North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey.
The commissioner made several stops in Henderson County Thursday.
At Edneyville Fire and Rescue, Causey spoke with Chief Robert Griffin about everything from the struggle to keep volunteers to insurance ratings. Causey also stopped by the Western Crime Lab in Edneyville and Earle Insurance Agency.
Griffin, who’s been chief since 2009 following an earlier tenure as chief from 2001-06, has been with the department since 1987. Edneyville does pretty well recruiting new members, he said, but struggles to hold on to volunteers.
Of the 52 firefighters at Edneyville, 38 are volunteers, he said. There are more positions still open, including some that aren’t fighting fires.
High housing costs and time constraints are two big reasons volunteers can’t stick around, Griffin said, noting that sometimes a volunteer will work two jobs to afford housing and doesn’t have the time left to volunteer.
Edneyville used to have entry level- style homes on the market, he added, but that doesn't seem to be the case any more.
“That is a challenge for us. We don’t have the apartment complexes to pull from in our district,” he said. “That’s starting to affect us more and more.”
He said that since the 1980s, call volumes have increased by a factor of more than 10, from around 100 per year to 1,200 to 1,300 per year, which comes to about 10,000 volunteer man hours.
That means more demands on a volunteer’s time, on top of 200 hours of training per year.
“That’s just a huge time commitment for people to be away from their families, their jobs,” Griffin said.
Causey also talked about the time constraints for volunteer firefighters, saying recruitment and retainment of volunteers are the biggest problems for most fire departments in the state.
There are positive things that help them retain folks, though, including fire service training at no cost and fuel reimbursements. But when operating on a fire service tax and trying to be good stewards of the public’s money, that’s about all they can do, Griffin said.
One program that Causey said he's seen make a big difference are junior firefighter programs that introduce students in high school to the opportunities in firefighting careers.
He also mentioned possibilities for increasing retirement contributions for firefighters, which he said are the most common requests his office receives. Volunteers currently contribute $10 per month to retirement, and Causey said maybe a contribution could be made per call for those volunteers to help make that happen.
"We've got to be creative and think outside the box," he said, adding that he's heard suggestions like lifetime hunting/fishing licenses for volunteers.
Across the country, 70 percent of departments are volunteer, he said, but 90 percent of departments depend on volunteers.
"It is what I call mission critical to find ways to recruit and retain volunteers and help our fire departments," Causey said.
When he took office in 2017, Causey was sworn into the fire department because he wanted to send a message. One of the first things he did was to work on the backlog of inspecting fire departments.
Causey got a list of all 1,351 fire station buildings across North Carolina's 100 counties and found that there were departments in the state that hadn't been inspected in nearly 25 years. Many hadn't been inspected in at least 18 years, and hundreds were way over the 10- or 15-year period. Those inspections should take place ideally every four or five years, he said.
There were only five inspectors at the time, so Causey and the department went to the state legislature, which provided 42 additional positions in the 2017 budget.
Edneyville is set to be inspected in June, the first time since 2008 that the department’s rating of 5 will be evaluated. With added personnel, more hydrants, a larger tanker and other improvements, Griffin hopes that rating can be boosted to a 4.
Chief State Fire Marshall Brian Taylor, also at Edneyville Thursday, said studies have shown a one-point change in the rating can mean $120 in savings per year for a homeowner.
"From a 9 to a 5 will affect the homeowner's rate," he said, and below that the rating tends to help industries more. Specific savings can't be studied, however, since there are so many variables when it comes to industry.
More important than a rating, Causey noted, is the quicker response time it represents and the potential to save a home from being destroyed or save a life.
The state Department of Insurance also hired three new attorneys to work with the state's district attorneys to investigate and prosecute arson cases. In one day, the state swore in 18 new law enforcement officers who are out there now making arrests, he said.
"We've doubled our criminal investigations" in the past year, and more fire inspections are being done than ever before, he added.
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