Move combats shortages at parish departments
When a recent emergency call drew one truck and three Luling firefighters, it became clear the concern over finding volunteers and keeping them was readily becoming an increasing problem.
“We’re definitely having a difficult problem with that,” said Luling Fire Chief Craig Petit. “The problem is with all the school activities and recreational activities, and both parents having to work, they don’t want to volunteer. It’s all over the country.”
A manpower shortage doesn’t only translate into worries about an adequate response to fires, but also influences the cost of homeowner’s insurance that is decided by ratings set by the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana (PIAL). The nonprofit association, composed of insurance companies licensed to write fire coverage in Louisiana, issues a class rating (1 best to 10 lowest) based on fire alarm and communication systems, fire department review and water supply.
Petit said manpower and how department’s respond to alarms substantially influences a community’s rating.
Luling has maintained its Class 3 rating for the last three years, but he’s concerned the need for more manpower and lessoning response to alarms could hurt it. Also, the area’s PIAL rating reassessment comes up in 2020.
To counter volunteer shortages and ensure reliable response, volunteer fire departments are shifting emphasis to hiring paid firefighters. But Petit said there isn’t enough funding to adequately staff them, so they still need volunteers and they’re getting harder to find and retain.
Parish voters supported a 1.58-mill property tax renewal for another 10 years, but the chief said the $2 million a year it raises is shared by nine fire departments to buy fire trucks and equipment, and covers the cost of water for firefighting – not personnel.
“From Friday through Monday, we’re run on volunteers,” Petit said. “The department only has funds for the employees on weekdays so on nights and weekends we rely on volunteers. We were having fire calls where three firemen showed up and it’s not enough.”
The parish’s volunteer fire departments can and often do assist each other in fires, but volunteer response is becoming more uncertain, Petit said.
“This hurts us big time with PIAL … homeowners insurance,” he said.
In response, the parish’s volunteer fire departments have been hiring firefighters part-time and fulltime, Petit said. The Paradis VFD just announced its first hire. Other departments in the parish also average one to two of them fulltime, as well as part-time, but not all can afford the move. At two departments, Des Allemands and Bayou Gauche, there are no paid firefighters, and they remain reliant solely on volunteers.
Of Luling VFD’s 50 volunteers, half respond to fires and the other half serve in support.
Additionally, Petit said requirements for volunteers are increasing, requiring even more dedication. Many of them can’t keep pace with the demands.
At Hahnville VFD, Chief Matt Allshouse said his department is struggling to get and keep volunteers, a growing problem with multiple factors.
“I just think its people’s lifestyles changing,” Allshouse said. “There’s more people with both husband and spouse working. People just don’t have that much time.”
In addition to people working longer hours and having less time to volunteer, he added the younger generation doesn’t seem interested in it or are equally busy.
Allshouse said he’s fortunate his remote job allows him to also serve as fire chief, and he feels comfortable with his day-to-day personnel. But he, like Petit, remains concerned about nights and weekends.
“There is no guarantee that they’re going to show or be able to show up, especially on minor calls such as getting someone out of bed at 2 a.m. on a gas leak,” he said.
But he, like Petit, also said volunteer firefighting requirements are getting tougher and harder to meet.
Asked if he was concerned about volunteer numbers, Allshouse responded, “Oh, yes. We may have two come and then two leave for whatever reason like relocations or changing jobs.”
Hahnville VFD also has agreements with neighboring departments for help, but he added, “there’s no guarantee” if they’ll show up in numbers needed.
“Every department is having issues,” Allshouse said. “It’s important to have people dedicated fulltime to firefighting.”
While Allshouse said the PIAl rating was important, he considered it a concern secondary to dealing with the call. The parish’s rates are average at Class 3, but he’s also concerned about what’s coming with new PIAL ratings next year.
A fulltime firefighter ensures trucks and equipment are dispatched while the volunteers are heading to the scene, a vital doubling of effort for a faster response, he said.
Allshouse added, “Ideally, it would be best to have staff 24 – 7.”
Volunteer Firefighters Association Fire facts
- Every 19 seconds, a fire department somewhere in the U.S. responds to a fire.
- Fire is the largest single cause of property loss in the nation.
- In the last decade, fires have caused direct losses of more than $120 billion and countless billions more in related costs.
- Every year, more than 3,000 Americans die in building fires, while more than 20,000 people are injured.
- Each year, fire kills more Americans than all natural disasters combined.