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Special Report: Volunteer Fire Departments

Volunteer Fire Departments protect more than 90%t of Arkansans and you expect them to "show up" within minutes during an emergency. But fire chiefs say they are having serious problems with funding and recruitment, meaning your 9-1-1 call for help could go unanswered.
 LITTLE ROCK, AR -- Volunteer fire departments protect more than ninety percent of Arkansans and you expect them to "show up" within minutes during an emergency. But fire chiefs say they are having serious problems with funding and recruitment...meaning your 9-1-1 call for help could go unanswered.

Volunteer firefighter supporter...

"I tried to take a large gel cap and it was huge. It lodged in my throat. and I couldn't get it up and down," said Judy O'Neal who had to call her local volunteer fire department for help.

Her husband tried doing the heimlich maneuver and when that didn't work, he called 911.

"It was a great relief to know that they were here to help me," said O'Neal.

The problem...

The problem lies within volunteer fire departments. Unlike paid firefighters, such as the ones in Little Rock, volunteer firefighters respond to calls for help only when their personal schedules allow.

"It's usually a time factor because maybe they are not staffed at the station. So they have to get to the station. Get on the truck. And by the time they get there, it may take a few minutes longer. And that's the tragedy of that," said Little Rock Fire Captain Dennis McCann

There are 938 fire departments in Arkansas. Only 24 are paid, while there are 914 volunteer departments. Most compete for grants, have fundraisers, and some collect fire protection dues. But that's still not enough to keep the lights on.

Randy Pogue is the chief for the Oak grove fire department.

"The smaller rural communities, unincorporated don't have the money to pay to have firefighters," said Pogue, who also sates transitioning to a paid fire department is not an option

Recruiting volunteers is another big issue. Pogue says unlike baby boomers, the newer generation of firefighters is not willing to give their time before or after working their normal jobs.

"When they are off, they want to be with their family. They don't want to be running out every time the pager goes off. It's just not as many volunteers as there used to be," said Pogue

He also says with little money and fewer volunteers, there is a chance a fire will break out and there will be no one to respond.

"In some of the real rural communities, that is a possibility. Yes," said Pogue.

Homeowner effects...

Fire chiefs say they have tried to raise money and recruit volunteers. But nothing seems to work. If the problem does not get better soon, insurance agents say the problem could spill into homeowner pocketbooks.

Homeowner's insurance rates are based on the quality of the fire department. Each one is rated by a national fire advisory organization on a scale of one to ten. Ten is the worst.

"There is a lot of ten in the Arkansas, in the rural area," said insurance agent Darin Hoover.

Solutions...

Chief Pogue says there is no clear solution to the problem.

"All the fire departments just have to keep hoping that it turns around and more members of the community get involved," said Pogue.


Chiefs encourage community members to donate time and money to their respective volunteer fire department.


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