Finding enough volunteers for the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department has become so difficult, officials are hoping to hire a full-time volunteer firefighter recruiter.
“We’ve got to get to a point where as chief I can guarantee service to the cities,” Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said.
Mark Brady, spokesman for the department, said there are between 1,500 and 2,000 volunteers in the county.
Brady said it was difficult to put an exact number to what was needed because volunteers don’t have a specific amount of time they have to volunteer.
The county has about 740 firefighters currently and the county has 45 fire stations, which responded to a total of 135,000 calls for service last year, Brady said.
“It would probably take about 2,000 career staff the way we’d like to see it,” Brady said. “At some point in the future we may realize that as the volunteer numbers continue to dwindle ... and it becomes necessary to hire career staff to fill in those needs.”
Brady said it would be physically impossible at this point to have an all-career department, but he sees it happening in the far future.
“The combination we have here works the majority of the time,” he said. “There needs to be more volunteers that are fully trained.”
Brady said the department is waiting on a decision from the fire commission, a group selected by the County Council to budget and approve expenditures for the fire department, for the hire of a full-time volunteer firefighter recruiter. Brady said candidates have been interviewed for the position and expects the commission to make a selection “any day now.”
The volunteer recruiter would examine different practices of volunteer stations, evaluate and implement what works for recruiting and retaining volunteers.
Bashoor said the shortage is in part due to the increase in training requirements, as basic fire school training was 60 hours when he started in 1981, and the training required now is more than 120 hours.
In January, Bashoor said the department was $4.3 million over its $132 million annual budget in fiscal 2013, creating a need to analyze cost-cutting measures such as the March decision to pull 22 career firefighters from four stations and reassigning them to seven other stations to handle more calls for service.
The economy prevents people from being volunteers because they are working longer hours and multiple jobs in order to support their families and don’t have time for volunteering, Brady said.
When a station can’t respond to a call, it becomes unavailable and the next closest station is called into service, Brady said.
Richard Leizear, chief of the Branchville Volunteer Fire Department, who also works as a career firefighter in Washington, D.C., said his station tries to increase morale and encourage volunteers by holding fundraisers, such as bingo games.
Brady said fundraisers increase morale because firefighters are enjoying time with the community while working together to buy something new for the fire station that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The College Park fire station benefits from its proximity to the University of Maryland, College Park, which has a fire engineering program and provides many volunteers, Leizear said. Currently, the department has about 80 volunteers with varying levels of experience.
Chuck Walker, president of the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association said the areas inside of the Beltway are the hardest hit by the volunteer shortage. The four stations switched to all-volunteer staffing are Seat Pleasant, Branchville, Boulevard Heights and West Lanham Hills.
“You read stories about how things were in World War II or in Korea. Everyone who was 18 or over went to sign up automatically,” Walker said of those who enlisted in the military. “It used to be the same thing in the fire department.”