Clarke part of program to draw volunteer firefighters

Posted: July 10, 2013

The Winchester Star

BOYCE — Volunteer fire companies can’t exist without people willing to serve their communities.

But finding such individuals is getting harder and harder.

That fact of life is an issue for rural areas, like Clarke County, that can’t afford to staff fire stations with paid personnel.

Now, Clarke is taking part in a model project to target specific groups in the community that may be more likely to volunteer.

The Virginia Fire Chiefs Association (VFCA) has selected the county as one of 14 jurisdictions to take part in a federally funded program, Volunteer Workforce Solutions, to increase membership of firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Decreasing membership is “a slow death,” said Brian Conrad, president of the Clarke County Fire and Rescue Association.

Fifty years ago, more people worked in the communities where they lived, and the fire hall was a center of activities for the area. Young people followed their parents as volunteer members.

Today, said Conrad, residents work out of the area, and young people have more options to fill their time.

“But, there’s a lot more to it than that,” he added.

Being a volunteer firefighter or serving on the rescue squad takes a lot more training, Conrad said.

State standards are much higher, he said, and the equipment is much more sophisticated.

Volunteers must commit to many hours of training, which often is not offered locally, according to Clarke County Administrator David Ash.

The new VFCA program harnesses the power of the Internet and the expertise of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), which is part of the program team with George Mason University and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Jimmy Carter, executive director of the VFCA, said the program “attempts to identify and mitigate the recruitment and retention problems facing volunteer fire departments” by showing how to get the message to those who would be most receptive to it.

Esri will help Clarke use a Geographic Information System Segmentation Study to take “an in-depth look at the community by measuring demographic, cultural and economic data to predict the best way to recruit volunteer firefighters.” The method has been successfully used by government agencies, businesses and organizations, according to Jennifer Schottke, senior manager of Fire/EMS and Public Safety Policy at Esri.

Esri is a marketing company, Conrad explained. “They know everything about everybody.”

“They have the entire population divided into 62 different groups,” he added.

The company can look over the demographic groups in Clarke and determine which ones are the most likely to volunteer their time and talent to fire companies and which are not.

“If you can identify the groups in your community who are likely to volunteer, you can focus on those groups and not waste time,” Conrad said. “A high percentage of the population won’t volunteer.”

Then, Conrad said, the association will try to target those groups with appeals to join, through various outreach programs.

County firefighters already did an outreach program recently at the Fourth of July fireworks display at the Ruritan Fairgrounds.

Plans are being made to have representatives visit the weekly farmers market in Berryville and the Enders’ Yard Party.

The program is planned to benefit all four of the county’s fire companies. People who show an interest in volunteering will be directed to a fire company near their home or work area, whatever is most convenient.

Conrad said none of the companies in Clarke has any experience in how to seek out volunteers.

“We don’t know how to look for volunteers,” he said. “I’m willing to try anything.”

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com