Proud volunteers of the Hinton Fire Department, photographed March 2008.
With the ongoing reliance on volunteer firefighters here, County Fire Chief Bob Howard has initiated a recruitment drive to gain new volunteers. The reason is straightforward, he said.
Even with full-time paid firefighters in place today, Pickens County still depends heavily on volunteer firefighters to make a response when fire breaks out.
The county fire department runs on a 24-hour basis (with professional firefighters manning two county firehouses round the clock) by relying on a total of just five paid firefighters per shift, explained Howard.
Backing that small core of professionals is a long roll of trained volunteers who also respond to fight fire whenever the call comes down, the chief said.
Manned all the time, County Station 5 on Cove Road covers northern Pickens and the county's east end, Howard said. Also manned round the clock, County Station 11, near the airport, covers the county's south side, the west end, and part of the north, he said.
But the whole county is also divided into several volunteer fire districts, he said, with volunteer firefighters responding to fires in their own district and beyond district lines when called for.
The fact is, when a fire breaks out in Pickens County, government still depends on volunteer firefighters in gaining control over it. Howard said every firehouse in the county, including those manned by paid government firefighters, has a volunteer fire company based from that station.
Volunteer fire stations sprinkle the county. A volunteer chief leads the fire company at each of those. County Fire Chief Howard leads the volunteer companies based at County Stations 5 and 11 and the Jasper city firehouse on Burton Street has a volunteer fire company based from that station, Howard said.
"Many of our past volunteers are not spring chickens anymore," Howard stated. "But they have the leadership and experience to make another generation of firefighters. It's the truth. The need to expand our volunteer firefighter rolls I believe has arrived."
In addition to the aging of volunteers, there is also an issue with younger volunteer firefighters finding full-time jobs in the field. Many volunteer firefighters who begin as volunteers ultimately land jobs somewhere as full-time firefighters, Howard said.
"When this happens," he said, "they become committed to the career schedule, which allows a small window of opportunity to continue as a volunteer firefighter in their community."
Most career firefighters work a 24-hour shift and are off work the next two days. That first day off, they are recovering from duty the day before, Howard explained. Only on the second down day would they be fit to respond as a volunteer firefighter, he said. So, once hired as a full-time firefighter, their availability as a volunteer firefighter drops to one day in three, he pointed out. That slack must be taken up by new volunteers.
So the call goes out. If you're wondering how to respond, you need to go see the fire chief at the station you would like to work from, Howard instructed.
"Individuals wanting to volunteer as a firefighter can go to a fire station in their area on a meeting and training night to see if this is something they would like to do," Howard said. "They can meet the chief [of that station] and discuss what all is involved."
A list of fire stations county-wide appears with this story, posting meeting dates and times for each firehouse. Or those interested in volunteering can contact Volunteer Firefighter Steve Smith, who coordinates recruiting communication. Smith's phone number is 706-299-1915.
Scheduled firefighter training for volunteers begins April 4, Howard said, to be taught in Pickens County by county firefighters. "That is conducted in the evening a couple times a week," he said. The training period extends about three months, he said. There are slots for about 20 new volunteers in the class, the chief said.
There are benefits and requirements involved in joining up to become a volunteer firefighter, Howard said. "A criminal background check and driving history will be conducted prior to them entering firefighter classes," the chief said. "They do have to be [at least] 18 years old to volunteer," he said. Benefits include having all of your needed equipment paid for plus the provision of insurance, since firefighting is hazardous business.
Volunteer firefighters can also gain first responder training as that relates to medical care, Howard said. "It's a state certification with a 60-hour class," he said.
Maybe the largest benefit of being a volunteer firefighter is knowing your service with a team of fellow volunteers impacts the community for much positive good. "You're invited to make your community a safer place to live and work," Howard said. "That's what it is.
Jeff Warren can be reached at