The number of volunteer firefighters heeding the call to serve is down across the state.
State officials say the number of people volunteering has dropped to levels predating a surge brought on by the 9/11 attacks.
The drop is making it even harder for departments to run on a fully volunteered staff, and the state-wide problem has local implications.
To put it in perspective, nationally there's been about an 8 percent drop in volunteer firefighters since the mid 80's.
However, in one rural Brazos County department there's been about a 40 percent drop in the last five years.
Therefore, local departments are having to find new ways to attract volunteers.
"It's just something I love to do. I was raised around firefighters, I'm a third generation firefighter," Volunteer Firefighter Chet Barker said. "I liked it so much I didn't mind not getting paid for it as well."
Chet Barker is one of a few, bucking a statewide trend that's seeing less and less volunteer firefighters reporting for duty.
"We used to average about 25 volunteer members, we now average about 15," District 2 Fire Chief Merrie Noak said.
Chief Noak says the past five years have been particularly rough on the rural volunteer fire department, because those 15 volunteers have to cover three stations and more than 130 square miles.
"Some of us are wearing two or three caps. Some of us are training officers, assistant chiefs, and firefighters all in one," Noak said. "Some of us take on the responsibility that maybe two or three individuals would have done in the past."
But on the other side of town Fire Chief Emily Staples says for the first time in a while she has all the volunteers she can handle.
"We're at our max right now," Staples said.
Like so many other departments across the state Staples noticed what was holding volunteers back: long hours, little perks and one Big commitment.
So Staples decided to heat things up...
"We have dinners fairly regularly, I'll have BBQ brought in, steak dinners," Staples said. "We pay for any training they want to go through, and their meals, and expenses and things like that."
It's those added benefits Chief Noak is hoping will do away with the volunteer dry spell, that's keeping her county departments all but empty.
"We're looking into incentives, reimbursements in fuel costs due to the rise and increase in diesel and gas," Noak said.
And for Chet Barker, who volunteers alongside his dad, those incentives, and the love for the job are enough to keep him around for the long haul.
"From my point of view, I can't understand why you wouldn't want to do it," Barker said. "It's rewarding, it's fun for me, and there's a lot of friendship involved in it."
Once a person does volunteer it typically takes eight to 10 months of training before they can respond to a fire. So the current deficit is not a quick fix.
To find out ways you can volunteer, contact the District 2 Fire Department at 979-589-3263 or click on the link below...
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