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BCFD seeks more volunteer firefighters as county applies for two SAFER grants
Career firefighters have not replaced vols, whose numbers have waned
Pat Lanier Jones
Pat Lanier Jones

Pat Lanier Jones is now getting the word out to recruit the first class of volunteer firefighters the Bulloch County Fire Department has sought since she took on the newly created role of volunteer recruitment and retention coordinator.

Successful applicants to become volunteer firefighters must have a high school diploma or GED and must pass driver history and criminal background checks. But not every minor infraction will necessarily disqualify them, she adds. Being willing to learn is also a prerequisite, and volunteers range from age 18 up, “all ages,” as she has seen in some already submitted applications.

“It’s something that if you want to serve your county and you’re dedicated, we need you,” she said.

The deadline for the current round of BCFD volunteer firefighter applications is Feb. 7, for the class proposed to begin around the first of March. Beginning firefighter training will take place a couple of nights each week and some Saturdays over several months.

Would-be volunteers can pick up an application at the county’s Emergency Operations Center, 17245 U.S. Highway 301 North, which is in front of the Sheriff’s Office, or call Jones at (912) 842-2200 to request one.

Jones, incidentally, is not based at the EOC but at BCFD Station 8, one of the Fire Department’s eight main stations across the county. There are also some substations.

After 36 years working with Bulloch County elections, including almost 12 as the election supervisor, Jones resigned from that job effective last June 30.  But she did not retire from county service, instead starting in the new BCFD volunteer recruitment and retention role in July.


SAFER grants

Now the county government, in applying for federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grants this year, intends to seek one that would cover Jones’ salary and benefits and also fund costs for marketing, special events and incentives aimed at volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention. That three-year grant, for a yet to be determined amount, would be separate from a larger SAFER grant of approximately $2.6 million in “leveraged funding” sought for the three-year cost of adding 12 paid, full-time firefighters.

The deadline to apply for these grants is Feb. 4.


Career and volunteer

Long an all-volunteer department, the BCFD turned towards becoming more of a combination department with the addition of 12 paid firefighters over the past year. The county also applied for a SAFER grant for 12 career firefighter positions a year ago but did not get it. Officials point out that individual counties and cities apply for these highly competitive grants much more often than they receive them.

Speaking to the Bulloch County commissioners at their Jan. 18 meeting, Fire Chief Chris Ivey and County Manager Tom Couch said the county currently has far fewer volunteer firefighters than it once did. Ivey reported that the BCFD at this point has 58 active volunteers. Couch noted that some years in the past the number was well over 100.

Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to apply for the grants.

“Whether we get the grant money or not, we need to be aggressive about recruitment and retention, which really go hand in hand,” Couch said in an interview Wednesday.  “We are getting low, almost to the point of the minimum number of volunteer firefighters we really need, and with volunteer firefighting, it’s a nationwide problem, trying to recruit them and keep them.”

The county recently increased the stipend that will be paid volunteer firefighters to $30 per call from the previous $20, he said. Stipends, awards and recognition programs for volunteer firefighters are some of the things county staff members would like to fund with the grant if possible. A recruiting video has been another suggestion, he said.


Goal of 85

With or without a grant, Jones has been set a goal of increasing the number of volunteer firefighters enrolled to 85. Couch said this is really a baseline and that the county could use 100 or 110 if it could find them.

Staffing to fight fires with on-call volunteers usually requires a larger pool of firefighters than if enough career personnel, who serve shifts at the station, are deployed, for reasons Jones noted.

“You’ve got your career people who when the tone goes out, they’re automatically going to go,” she said. “But with your volunteers, you know, are they home?  Are they where they can go? …  They have other jobs.”

She said she is still learning her job and listening to volunteer firefighters for what recruiting and retention efforts may work best.

“I’m still learning as I go because, you know, there was no predecessor,” Jones said. “So I’m trying to get to know the volunteers, to understand them and how they feel about the Fire Department, seeing what they think would be good moves.” 

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