Answering the Call
The nationwide decline in volunteering for fire and rescue companies is taxing
an overburdened emergency system. But from Bethesda to Poolesville,
volunteering in Montgomery County is on the rise. Here’s why.
When Jim Jarboe joined the Takoma Park Volunteer Fire Department in 1956, every responder donated his time. There were no pagers or cell phone alerts when emergency calls came through. A loud siren would wail its simple code – once for an ambulance call, twice for an auto accident, three times for a fire – demanding community volunteers get to the station immediately. People would stop what they were doing and even close their businesses to go help.
Back then, firefighters’ safety wasn’t a big concern. Emergency volunteers didn't buckle themselves up inside the truck. They would hang on to the side or the back – sometimes getting more soaked by rain, snow or sleet than by a gushing fire hose. Calls could require simple first aid or running into a burning building in the days before the invention of smoke alarms and automatic sprinklers.
During the 1950s through the 1970s, seven Jarboes gave their time to the department: Jarboe, his father, uncle and four brothers. “In the fire service, it’s like this: You either get the bug or you don’t get the bug,” Jarboe says. “It’s not for everybody. It’s exciting. It’s adventure. You are helping people. You are saving lives, and it’s fun. When you go to the fire house, it’s your second family.”
Today, volunteers make up about 69 percent of fire and emergency medical service personnel nationally. Records for volunteers started being kept in 1984. “If you look over the numbers over the last 25, 30 years, the numbers have gone down,” says Kimberly Quiros, communications director for the National Volunteer Fire Council. “To compare today’s numbers to then, (volunteering nationwide is) down about 13 percent. At the same time, while the numbers are declining in volunteers, the call volume has about tripled so there is more response needed and fewer volunteers to respond. That’s why it’s really critical to have really good recruitment and retention efforts.”
Montgomery County, which has a combined system of paid career and volunteer fire/EMS professionals, has been going against the declining national trend. Local officials have seen a significant increase in emergency personnel volunteering in the past several years. In January 2009, more than 900 people were certified volunteers. That number grew to over 1,600 in January 2014.
Eric Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, attributes the success to creating a business plan, having a full-time recruiter and a recruitment center, marketing and the Volunteer Basic Orientation Course.
When Bernard was hired nine years ago, he was tasked with coming up with a solution to successfully recruit and retain volunteers for the county’s 19 volunteer fire and rescue companies. As an adjunct professor at George Washington University, he spent two years doing extensive research.
“We wrote a comprehensive business plan to first look at the (volunteering) problem, define it, understand it, and come up with solutions,” he says. He came up with 38 goals and then began implementing them.
Before the plan, Bernard says, there was no unified approach to recruiting. “We brought them all together and said, ‘Hey, we are 19 independent companies doing 19 ways of recruiting and 19 ways of retention and 19 ways of indoctrination,’ ” he says. “We said, ‘We need to work together and share and pool resources and not be doing the same thing over and over again.’ ”
The United States military provided inspiration in several areas of the business plan. Modeling off of the military’s basic training boot camp, the association created a one-night-a-week, 10-week introduction class called the Volunteer Basic Orientation Course. Started six years ago and with more than 1,400 volunteers trained, the structured class works because it’s a friendly environment and everyone comes in on the same level, Bernard says.
Taking a countywide approach to recruitment, the association wanted a place where people could walk in and get information about volunteering. Since fire and ambulance stations are often busy and locked for security purposes, “We said, ‘Let's look at the military model. What does the military do to get volunteers?’ Well, they have recruiting stations,” Bernard says.
Three years ago, the association opened the first fire and rescue recruiting station in the nation in Rockville. “It’s like a little mini firehouse,” Bernard says. “People walk in every day off the street – those that are interested in volunteering; some that just have questions; some with kids that want to see it. It’s been a great community outreach space that we try to have open every day.”
Rick Tappan, who serves as MCVFRA’s recruitment and retention officer, has seen a variety of people volunteering, from stay-at-home moms to teenagers to empty nesters to those with aspirations to one day be a career firefighter or paramedic. Some want to be operational members who answer emergency calls while others do administrative work.
“Volunteering is a uniquely American commodity,” Tappan says. “You look at any great event we have done here in America, i.e. Olympics, World Cup, it’s full of volunteers. You don’t see that worldwide. People, I think, have this inherit need to help, to want to do something.”
Tappan employs a variety of methods to get the word out about fire and rescue volunteering opportunities in the county. He provides information to local high schools if students wish to do their student service learning hours with them and he does school career days.
“I attend every possible volunteer fair I can attend or work fair,” he says. He also does public safety education presentations, uses multiple social media outlets and sets up booths at local higher education facilities. “I scour the Internet for opportunities to show our face, show what we do, what we offer,” he says. “I leave brochures everywhere I can.”
With 33 years in fire service as a career man and a volunteer, Tappan most recently was a deputy chief of EMS in Kuwait for U.S. Army bases. He was ready to hang up his boots when a friend told him about the recruiting position.
“If you want to do something for your community, volunteer,” Tappan says. “There are a lot of worthwhile causes out there. Do something.”
Being a volunteer for the fire and rescue service is a massive commitment and requires an extensive amount of training, which can take up to a year and a half. MCVFRA tries to get a volunteer trainee on the apparatuses fairly quickly, but he is only observing. In order for a volunteer to be allowed to answer calls for service, he must complete about 350 hours of training, which usually means taking classes two nights a week and a one day on the weekend. It’s the same training required of career staff.
“Everybody trains at the same level,” Bernard says. “Same classes, same physical requirements. Everything is the same. The only difference is one gets a paycheck, one doesn’t… The opportunities are endless, and it costs nothing except time. We pay for all the training. The training costs us thousands of dollars per person (but) is absolutely free and that training goes with you for life.”
The National Volunteer Fire Council’s Quiros says volunteering is down nationally because many do not have enough time for the training due. They have multiple jobs, family commitments and lengthy commutes. Those who successfully complete the training requirements must maintain their certifications, which can be around 50 hours of classes annually. Bernard says they try to do refresher training during volunteers’ shift down time.
But volunteers are critical to each community – not only for their life-saving skills but their efforts save millions of dollars annually.
“We simply could not replace all the volunteer firefighters with career firefighters because the communities could not support them,” Quiros says.
Chris Hinbe, a captain with the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, grew up around the fire service. His grandfather, who served as the company’s president, volunteered in 1965 with his father starting in 1974.
“My father held every operation rank up to and including fire chief,” he says. Even his mom volunteers doing administrative work. “For us, it’s a family affair.”
When Hinbe graduated high school, he moved out of his family’s home and into the firehouse. In exchange for working four nights a week, he lived there rent free for several years. It’s a program that continues today with other young volunteers, most being college students. “People come from all over the country to live at the firehouse,” he says.
When he isn’t working as a career firefighter/EMT for Washington, D.C., he comes to the Rockville station for at least three or four hours. “Overall, it’s just a lot of fun to be able to do the things we do as serious as they are.”
Bernard believes volunteering is one of the most rewarding things a person can do in life.
“You hear people say, ‘Why do you volunteer?’ To give back. I’m not sure what you are giving back,’ Bernard says. “I think what you are doing is giving of yourself. Some people, very wealthy, can give a lot of money. Nobody can say how much time they have in a day, a week, a year or their lifetime. You get what God gives you and what you do with that time defines who you are.”
While health issues have sidelined Jarboe from responding to calls, he remains active with Takoma Park as a member of the board of directors and teaching CPR classes. He says he will continue to volunteer as long as he can still contribute. Since the station is a secure building, people need key cards to get in. He says he often jokes, “When the card doesn’t work or when I ring the door bell and nobody answers, maybe they are telling me something.”