Mississippi – Approximately 200,000 people have left the ranks of volunteer fire departments nationwide in the past 20 years and the ranks continue to dwindle. The numbers have gone from about one million volunteer firefighters to around 800,000. The problem also exists in Jones County.
“Our departments are not fully staffed,” said Lance Chancellor, public information officer for the Jones County Fire Council. “There is not a single department that has everybody they need. There is not one department that could not use more personnel.”
The 20 volunteer fire departments in the county especially know that during the past few weeks, in which there have been higher than normal incidents requiring major emergency personnel response including an oil well fire, a natural gas leak in front of an elementary school, traffic fatalities and major structure fires. And Chancellor said that has been the trend in Jones County over the past few years historically higher call volumes than in the preceding years.
“Some of our volunteer fire departments need additional personnel more than others,” he said. “That’s particularly true in the rural locations where you don’t have a very large population base to draw from. Some in the suburban areas closer to Laurel have more people actually living in their area. They have more people to recruit firefighters from. There is a national need. Nationally, we’ve lost approximately 200,000 volunteer firefighters that have just left, and haven’t been replaced.
“Folks are working more, or working two jobs, and just trying to make ends meet,” continued Chancellor, who is stepping down as the PIO for the Jones County Fire Council after five years, but will continue as the assistant fire chief for Powers VFD. “They just don’t have the time to devote to it. The common refrain across the country is ‘we don’t have enough people.’ They’re working too much, there is no time to go to meetings and mandated training. It puts a strain on those who are left in the departments. Volunteer fire services levels are down everywhere.”
There are approximately 700 water meters in the Soso Community Water System. Those on the water system have the option of giving an extra dollar a month on their bill, which goes to help support the volunteer fire department. Only about 220 are contributing, said Soso Fire Chief Glen Musgrove.
“New people who move in don’t know about the option,” Musgrove said. “$700 would certainly keep the trucks running and pay the bills.”
The area the Soso fire department serves has three other water systems within it, including Matthew-Moss and Tri-County. “We haven’t been to the other water systems, but it would be nice if they would add a dollar a month,” he said. “We could split with Shady Grove (VFD) on Matthew-Moss, and maybe split Tri-County with Stringer.
“Obviously, the supervisors (the Jones County Board of Supervisors) talk like volunteer fire departments are an important part of the county, but we don’t have their full support,” Musgrove added. “EmServ was doing extrication several years ago, but we (the VFDs) took it on without any additional funding. That has dramatically increased our run numbers.”
Musgrove said the county’s Class 8 fire rating saves the average homeowner about $492 a year on insurance premiums.
“I have five vehicles parked at my house,” he said. “I can probably find in excess of a dollar in change in the ashtray in every one of them. A 20-ounce Coke is $1.38. We’re asking for a dollar a month minimum. Some are giving $2-$5 a month.
“We’ve gotten federal grants for new trucks and equipment, but we’ve had to cough up over $25,000 to match those grants,” Musgrove continued. “People look at our equipment and say we’ve got all the money we need, but it’s not true.”
Musgrove said the Soso department has five active volunteers. His wife, Julie, is one of them. She is certified as a firefighter and a driver.
“Sometimes, it’s been just me and her responding to fires,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of guys well over 60 years of age, and they’re good drivers. They’re both dedicated. We had two structure fires in one morning several weeks ago. I took a truck, and one of them took a truck. He pumped two trucks and I fought the fire.
“When we ask for volunteers, people say they have too many irons in the fire, that they’re too busy,” Musgrove continued. “I know what that’s like. We have five children at home, four school age, and we home-school them. We’re trying to open a hardware store in Soso, plus I have a full-time job.”
He is a broadcast engineer for Clear Channel Radio.
Musgrove has been a volunteer firefighter off and on for 24 years and has been at Soso since 1984. He’s been chief for the past five years.
“We plan to go door-to-door asking for financial support, and for volunteers,” he said. “And while we’re there, we’ll ask if they have smoke detectors. If they don’t, we’ll get them some. If the batteries need changing, we’ll do that. Unfortunately, right now, we don’t have the time to do it. We’ll have to take an hour or two a day when anyone with the department can help.”