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Fire departments in dire need of volunteers

Washington County’s fire departments are in critical need of volunteers to fill their rosters with people who want to help others and serve their community in the process.

With an average of 800 calls per year throughout the county, having volunteers to answer them is a top priority. All of the departments in the county are staffed with volunteers who give up time with their families and sometimes sleep to be of service.

“We have got to have more people,†said Washington County Fire Department (Sunny Hills) Chief Al Gothard. “We need people who can respond during the day. There are times where we have toned out every department in the county, and only three people show up. We get it done, but we really need more people.â€

The majority of the volunteers work during the day and are unable to leave their jobs to respond to calls. 

“We understand that many cannot leave their jobs during the day,†said Orange Hill Fire Department Chief Jeromy Hayes. “I’m one of those people. Having volunteers to answer daytime calls would relieve a huge burden we are facing.â€

Orange Hill Fire Department Chief Jeromy Hayes addressed the Washington County Board of County Commissioners about the shortage of volunteers facing the departments. [DIANE M. MOORE | THE NEWS AND ADVERTISER]
Several years ago, the county applied for and was awarded a Staffing For Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant through FEMA. The grant is meant to provide funding to the county to have paid firefighters on duty during business hours for a three year period which allows the county time to budget to keep those firefighters in those paid positions. Unfortunately, the county was unable to keep those firefighters on the payroll.

“The county received the SAFER grant before I came on board,†County Administrator Jeff Massey said. “I came on at the tail end of it and was unable to keep it going. I believe we can get the SAFER grant again, but that isn’t the only avenue we are looking at for funding.â€

According to Massey, the county is exploring several avenues for a long-term solution to fire services and a way to fund bringing on two full-time firefighters to work Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“While two would help, we need at least six to make a difference,†Hayes said. “We are supposed to have two in and two out and one on the truck to meet standards. During the day, we are doing good to have three.â€

“Two full-time people sounds great on the surface,†Gothard said. “But in reality, it won’t make much of a difference. We have got to have more people.â€

As an incentive for volunteers, the county pays for the person to gain their Fire I and/or Fire II certification. 

“We are always looking for more volunteers; that is how we can continue to serve our community,†County Fire Coordinator Justin Leach said. “It is a great way to be of service to others.â€

Leach said his number one priority is providing the best for the citizens of Washington County. 

“This is a team effort, it isn’t about me,†he said. “I love my job and I know my firefighters do, too. Our goal is to provide the best fire protection to our citizens. With the dedicated volunteers, I want to see our fire service advance forward.â€

One way the county is moving fire service ahead is in the form of two new pumper tanker trucks. The county has applied for appropriations for the trucks, which has passed through the Senate and House with the county having been asked for more information. If the measure makes it to the final budget, it would be the first time in the county’s history that a fire department has had a brand new truck.

Should the trucks become a reality, volunteers will be in even higher demand in order to have them in operation. 

For more information on becoming a volunteer firefighter, contact Justin Leach at 850-415-5026 or email him at jleach@washingtonfl.com.


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