(March 22, 2007) The days of an all-volunteer fire department in Davidson have ended. The Davidson Fire Department recently added paid “standby” firefighters on weekdays to supplement volunteers.
The change comes as the town copes with an increase in fire and emergency medical services calls amid rapid growth and the difficulty of finding volunteers available at all times, especially during the work week.
TWO ON STANDBY
Davidson is now paying two firefighters to work eight-hour daytime shifts Mondays through Fridays, Davidson Fire Chief Bo Fitzgerald said Thursday.
Chief Fitzgerald said the part-timers will cost the town about $60,000 a year. Eventually, he would like to add paid night time coverage as well.
These fully-trained “standby” firefighters are drawn from a pool of 13 part-timers, most of whom are moonlighting from full-time jobs with Charlotte or other surrounding departments, Chief Fitzgerald said.
Davidson’s 29 volunteers will keep responding alongside the paid staff, and will still be responsible for weeknight and weekend calls, said the chief, who is himself a full-time Charlotte fire captain when he’s not volunteering for Davidson.
“This provides something that we haven’t been able to provide before: a guarantee that when you call 911, you’re going to get a fire truck with qualified individuals on board,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
The biggest issue is not with the quality of Davidson’s volunteers, he said, but their number and availability.
“We’ve got a great group of volunteers here and they pull a huge load, but they have jobs to do and there are times when they can’t do it,” he said.
GROWTH IN CALLS
When Mr. Fitzgerald started working for Davidson 11 years ago, the volunteer fire department handled about 270 calls a year. In 2006, there were 1,002 calls, including emergency medical services (EMS) responses — a service the town added in 2003. (See chart)
“There’s definitely been a large increase in call volume, and it’s continuing to go up as the population increases,” Chief Fitzgerald said.
Davidson’s population is currently about 8,000, but could nearly double in the coming years, based on the number of new developments approved or in the works. Meanwhile, non-residential construction is also booming, creating a need for improved coverage of office buildings, hotels, schools and other institutions.
INCENTIVES FOR VOLUNTEERS
Part-time standby firefighters are paid about $10 to $12 an hour, according to Town Manager Leamon Brice. The part-time work is being shared among a pool of people to keep costs down. None will work more than 1,000 hours a year, a level at which the town would have to grant additional benefits.
Davidson already incurs some personnel costs for firefighting. Volunteers currently get incentive payments at the end of each year based on the number of calls they respond to, where they live and their level of training. The average check totals about $3,000, Mr. Fitzgerald said.
“It’s a nice little check, but it’s nothing near the hours we end up putting in,” he said.
The incentive payments are a recruiting tool to help keep the department up to staff as the town grows.
STRAINS OF GROWTH
Davidson and other area towns served by volunteer fire companies are feeling the strain of rapid growth, and some fire officials are worried they won’t be able to keep up. Davidson’s volunteer fire department was the lead example cited in a recent Charlotte Observer article about the issue.
Despite the addition of paid staff, Davidson is continuing to recruit and train volunteers, Chief Fitzgerald said. The 29-member staff includes four Davidson College students who are going through certification now, he said. (Chief Fitzgerald invites potential volunteers to contact him by email.)
But recruiting is difficult, and no longer enough, he said. “It’s not just here in Davidson, but across the board. People just don’t have the time. Standards (for firefighters) have increased dramatically. People don’t have time to put in the training we require,” Chief Fitzgerald said.
PAID/VOLUNTEER HYBRID FOR NOW
For now, part-time help is all the town needs; volunteers will still be the department’s backbone, Chief Fitzgerald said.
A full-time professional department is still far in the future, and at least for now, unaffordable for Davidson. A full-time fire department would cost $1.5 million to $2 million annually, he said. And the town would probably need to build a new fire station with sleeping quarters as well.
With the part-timers, he said, “The town is still getting a really good deal.”
WANT TO VOLUNTEER?
Contact Fire Chief Bo Fitzgerald to volunteer with the Davidson Volunteer Fire Department. He can be reached at 704-892-7591 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.