Cumberland Times-News

Local News

April 10, 2010

Fire, EMS departments need younger volunteers

Sounding the alarm

— CUMBERLAND — In September 1881, the Lonaconing business district suffered a major fire.

The following April, the town’s first volunteer fire company was formed. Since 1906, the renamed Good Will Volunteer Fire Department and its members have worked to keep safe its people, homes and businesses. Training the next generation of volunteer firefighters has begun in earnest. Good Will Volunteer Fire Company has the largest, and one of the most successful, junior firefighter programs in Allegany and Garrett counties with nearly two dozen members.

It’s unclear how many of those youngsters will become full-fledged volunteer firefighters, or how many will remain with the Lonaconing unit upon graduation of high school or college.

All local officials can do is hope for the best. But in a time of economic crises for federal, state and local governments, volunteer fire and emergency medical services units are relying on volunteers now more than ever. At the same time, the area’s population continues to decline.

Longtime volunteers “aren’t gettin’ any younger,” said Dennis Mallery, president of the Allegany-Garrett Counties Fire and Rescue Association and 31-year veteran of Oldtown Volunteer Fire Department. “That’s why we need an influx of young people, particularly, to take over, eventually. Without the young people moving up through the ranks, each year you get less and less.”

Allegany County’s 27 volunteer units have nearly 1,300 volunteers on the rolls. Less than half are qualified, active volunteers who have earned 50 or more points each year for the past three years in the Maryland State Tax Incentive program.

Alison Northcraft serves in a federal grant-funded position of recruitment and retention coordinator under the Allegany County Department of Public Safety.

Northcraft expressed concern about individual fire departments and their ability to meet the needs, in terms of budget and volunteers, for the long term. Some volunteer companies in Pennsylvania are studying the feasibility of switching to paid fire departments.

“Yes, we need volunteers,”  Northcraft said. “If this doesn’t happen, then (someone) is going to have to step in and transfer everything over to paid departments. And I don’t want to see that happen.”

Mallery said local governments, and the local communities, can’t afford it. Everyone, he said, “is hard-pressed right now because of the downturn in the economy. Donations are down. Certainly, grant programs are fading out because of the economy.”

Northcraft and Mallery both said it appears that cash-strapped counties such as Allegany and Garrett are unlikely to have any desire to control a countywide fire department.

“There’s no way there’s enough money,” Northcraft said. “Each of these departments functions as their own business.”

Northcraft said the economic downturn has caused potential volunteers, which can be as young as 16 years old, to seek a job — or a second job, either of which limits time committed to volunteer opportunities. The training is free to the volunteer, but it takes at least a year’s worth of training to become a firefighter.

Some volunteer stations, such as those in Cresaptown, Rawlings and Bedford Road, offer live-in programs to college students in exchange for firefighter training.

There is hope, Northcraft said.

“We have gotten a good bit of new members in the system,” she said. “However, they are still going through the process of training.”

Since Northcraft was hired in September 2007, she has helped to attract 237 new volunteers in Allegany County alone. That’s a small percentage of the number of people she makes contact with.

“Wow, I gotta put a figure on that? I couldn’t tell ya,” Northcraft said of how many students, parents and potential volunteers she meets with at events such as Garrett County’s Autumn Glory Festival and school assemblies.

“Basically, what I tell people is that volunteers are needed,” Northcraft said. “We need more people in this system. If you like to help people, and have a desire and passion (to do so), then volunteering is something you should look at.”

For volunteer possibilities, contact Northcraft at 301-876-9155, ext. 112 or e-mail anorthcraft@allconet.org.

Kevin Spradlin can be reached at kspradlin@times-news.com.

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