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Watch now: Lee County volunteer fire departments struggle to keep up with county growth and increased calls

Watch now: Lee County volunteer fire departments struggle to keep up with county growth and increased calls

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Lee County is growing and local fire departments are always looking for more volunteers.

The population surge over the last decade, from 140,000 in 2010 up to 165,000 today, has created more homes and busier roads all over the county. However, even with the population spike, volunteer chiefs struggle to maintain the numbers of responders needed to provide their communities with adequate fire protection.

“When I took over as fire chief in 1999, a busy month for us was 20-25 calls,” said Beauregard Fire Chief Mike Holden. “Now we’re up 80-90 calls a month.”

The volunteer departments – Salem, Beauregard, Beulah, Smiths Station, Farmville, Lee County Southwest, Oak Bowery and Salem/Crawford — fund operations with their annual cuts of the county’s $50 per household fire fee, whatever fundraising they are able to do, and a lot of grant writing. They have the same responsibilities as their paid counterparts in Opelika and Auburn, without the extra city budget support those departments receive.

They don’t just work fires and car wrecks. They handle insurance paperwork that goes between insurers and their customers; ongoing training; routine maintenance of trucks, equipment and stations; providing mutual aid to surrounding departments and police; writing up incident reports and the like – all while dealing with constant turnover.

“Looking for good volunteers is kind of an ongoing thing,” added Holden, who has around 28 volunteers at any given time and about 20 who are active. “It’s a never-ending battle. For every two or three that you get certified, you lose one or two. They’ve got other things going on or they don’t realize the requirements – keeping your training up and keeping your certifications up and the amount of time that it actually takes away from the family.”

Help from the pros, others

Beulah has a hybrid model, with some professionals mixed in with volunteers, while other departments around the county have volunteer officers who also work full-time for the Opelika and Auburn fire departments. In their city jobs, they work 24 hours on and 48 hours off, giving them time to help out with training, paperwork, maintenance and other tasks.

“We have a lot (firefighters) from the city of Auburn, so the volunteers get really good training and a lot of great advice from guys who have experienced a lot more in the world of firefighting than you would ever have with the volunteer department,” explained Farmville Fire Chief Carson Stroud, himself an Auburn city firefighter.

Auburn University is another ready source of volunteers. Thanks to their proximity to campus, Farmville and Lee County Southwest Fire Department have several Auburn University students. Some of them use the station houses as study halls, doing homework or other chores and staying ready for the next call.

Some of them study Fire Science at the university, but most of the student volunteers join up for other reasons.

“I started when I was 15, in Birmingham, in a junior firefighter program. I just thought it was interesting,” said Lt. Hadee eI-Kattan of Lee County Southwest, who also works for the city of Auburn’s fire department. “… I got involved in the fire service when I moved here to Auburn for college. I kind of missed the whole dynamic of the fire service. So I found this place and I kind of joined up and then a year and a half later is when I went through (Auburn city’s) recruit school.”

El-Kattan recruited Robert Smith, a friend who did the junior firefighter program with him in Birmingham, to join Southwest, which hosts training sessions for volunteers from the rest of the county’s fire companies.

“It’s a good way to stay involved with the fire service, but not have a huge time commitment like with a normal job,” said Smith, who is now enrolled in the same Auburn city program that El-Kattan completed.

Angela Burns volunteers for Farmville when she’s not working as an emergency medical technician for East Alabama Medical Center or trying to finish up her undergraduate degree on her way to medical school. Wherever she goes to medical school, she plans to find a volunteer department to work with.

Making the time for volunteer service is important to her.

“It gives me a chance to work with people who I wouldn’t get to work with otherwise,” Burns said.

Insurance Service Office (ISO) ratings determine how much homeowners’ insurance costs in a given fire district. The more stations, equipment and firefighters a district has, the lower homeowners have to pay for insurance. The lower the ISO number, the better.

Southwest boasts an ISO rating of 3, which any department profession or volunteer would brag about. That success comes despite having to cover most everything between Loachapoka and the Macon County line with older equipment, having to truck water to fire scenes, and experiencing a high turnover of volunteers.

“We really try to put ourselves kind of that step above and as close to professional as we can possibly,” said Southwest Capt. Tom Peavy. “… We want to be that department that other departments look at and try to be.”

As gratifying as the low ISO is to Peavy, that isn’t his motivation for spending time with Lee County Southwest. The camaraderie between firefighters and the service to fellow citizens are payment enough for him.

“When you get involved, you realize there are aspects that you don’t need to be paid for,” Peavy said.

Josh Datnoff, Auburn city firefighter and Farmville volunteer, said he pitches volunteer fire service as an opportunity, not an obligation. He stressed that not everyone has to be young and buff to do the work – helping with paperwork, cleaning the station, raising money or serving on a district board are all as important to the mission as shooting water into burning buildings.

“If I know somebody who wants to help and give back to the community and serve others, I just tell them we have a great opportunity here, a good group of volunteers and great department,” Datnoff said. “We’ve got good apparatus and equipment. … I try to get them in the door that way, but it’s really ‘service over self.’”

For a list of Lee County fire departments, visit leecoema.com or look for your local department on Facebook.

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