Nov 1, 2013 7:22 PM by Akeam Ashford
The only requirement a person needs to be a volunteer firefighter is the will to help their community.
"They're doing it because they want to do it. They're not doing it because they want to collect a check. They're doing it because they truly want to assist and make a difference in their community," says Brian Castille, St. Martin Parish Fire District Coordinator.
But Castille, and other fire chiefs, say there aren't enough men and women willing to step into the life of fire. So, the profession that has saved so many lives, might now need some rescuing of its own.
Even with simple requirements, Louisiana state fire marshal H Butch Browning says fire departments across the state are having trouble recruiting people with the desire to volunteer.
"When you're asking someone to be called at a moment's notice, to leave their bed in the middle of the night, and yet still have to go work their full-time job the next day, you know many people aren't willing to commit to that like I've seen in the past," Browning says. "Use to be the volunteer ranks were very robust and there was a waiting list in some fire departments to get in, but now that's not the case. It's very concerning to us."
Volunteer firefighters make up 73 percent of the state's firefighting force. In Acadiana, that number is even higher. Eighty percent are volunteers.
Acadia has 283 volunteer firefighters; Evangeline, 436; Iberia, 176; Jeff Davis 277; Lafayette 201; St. Landry, 454; St. Martin, 286; St. Mary, 299; and Vermilion 319.
The numbers may seem high, but more are needed. To help recruit more volunteers, Browning helped push two bills through last year's legislative session. The first, bill set up the Length of Service Awards Program.
"Let's just say somebody volunteers for 25 years. That might, at the end of that time of service, might afford them a monthly remuneration for their services as a volunteer," Browning says.
The second, the Firefighter Volunteer Tuition Reimbursement Board was set up to provide qualified volunteer firefighters the opportunity to get a degree paid for by the state.
"I think any incentives that give back for their service are good, but, again, the big problem is affording to pay for that," Browning says. "Many of the departments that have volunteers can't afford to maintain equipment, and the responsibilities that are in front of them right now."
The Broussard Volunteer Fire Department is taking incentives a step further. The City Council has created a volunteer firefighter per-call stipend.
"I'm really excited to be one of the first in the parish to do. We're definitely thinking it's going to increase response and be better overall," says Broussard fire chief Bryan Champagne.
The stipend will pay volunteers $20 per call, and $15 for attending training sessions. The stipend will help volunteer firefighters pay for the cost of fuel, lights and equipment not issued by the department.
"We're seeing an increase already with some of the people we have on staff. They're actually showing up to calls that may or may not have shown up before," Champagne says.
Browning believes being a firefighter comes with a certain unsung reward, something he learned early on as a volunteer firefighter.
"I've never developed a computer program; I've never built a house. But, I sure know what it feels like when you're there giving CPR to someone and they're revived and you see them months later in church and they are alive," Browning says.
If you're interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter, call 1-800-FIRE-LINE, or call your local fire department. A list of contact information can be found here: AcadianaVFD.pdf