This story was corrected on Jan. 13, 2014. An explanation follows the story.
As many volunteer fire departments across the country struggle with declining membership and more calls for service, Montgomery County officials say the area’s volunteer fire services are healthy, growing and saving taxpayers millions.
Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association Executive Director Eric Bernard said the organization has received three federal grants in recent years totaling nearly $1 million. That has helped hire a volunteer firefighter recruiter, and advertise and promote volunteer firefighting opportunities through social media.
Those efforts have paid off, according to association officials: The county’s volunteer fire departments recruited more than 260 new volunteers in 2013.
“There are lots of potential volunteer firefighters — they need to know they are needed and welcome,” county Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg told The Gazette.
Montgomery County has nearly 1,200 career firefighters and more than 900 volunteer firefighters or rescue personnel, such as paramedics. According to Bernard, almost 700 more recruits are in the process of becoming volunteer firefighters or rescue personnel.
State and tax dollars pay for training, Bernard said, adding that to reach “minimum staffing” levels of training — 350 hours of training — usually takes about a year.
A 2011 report by his association estimated that volunteer firefighters, EMTs and paramedics saved Montgomery County $25 million every year in salaries, benefits and equipment. Volunteer fire and rescue squads own many of their stations, and purchase and maintain some of their equipment, Bernard said. County dollars subsidize some costs, he said.
One station — the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad — operates completely free of Montgomery County tax dollars, he said.
The county’s current fire and rescue system emerged from a structure that included many volunteer fire departments. Over time, many departments added paid firefighters and rescue workers as they became unable to handle the high call volume.
In 1989, many of those employees became county employees, Bernard said. About 10 years ago, all of the individual fire departments came under the authority of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
According to Scott Graham, assistant chief with the service, volunteers work alongside career firefighters and rescue personnel, and provide needed night and weekend coverage.
“When a firetruck goes out of a fire station, chances are it could be staffed with both volunteer and career personnel,” he said.
“It’s a different system,” Graham said, laughing. “But it’s one that, when it shakes out at the end of the day, works better than most [departments that are] all paid or all volunteer that I know of. It’s incredibly efficient, incredibly successful.”
Graham, who started his career volunteering in Ocean City, said the county’s volunteer and career firefighters have worked together for decades. More recently, the county struck a collective bargaining agreement with its volunteers, an arrangement that provides educational benefits like those other county employees receive, as well as uniforms, recognition for service and other benefits. Fire officials say the agreement is unusual and one of the only ones they know of its kind in the country.
“It’s very similar to the [career] contract in its intent to provide a working environment for volunteers, but also a framework where the county wants them to succeed through,” Graham said.
Ned Sherburne juggles working as a federal employee in Washington with serving as chief of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. He has been a volunteer firefighter since 1978.
Volunteer firefighters and career firefighters acknowledge there has been occasional friction between the two groups in the past, but Sherburne said the current relationship between the groups is “pretty good.” He added that the county’s attitude toward the volunteer system has helped keep volunteer enthusiasm high.
“When people feel needed, they will continue to participate,” he said. “If they feel passed aside or not needed, that can be a very negative thing.”
Fire officials say the system provides the county with numerous benefits, such as training for aspiring career firefighters. It offers a stream of seasoned career firefighters who frequently return to volunteer departments in leadership or trainer positions after they retire.
In many cases, aspiring firefighters begin volunteering at their local station or with a specific department, Bernard said. There are 19 volunteer fire departments in Montgomery County, he said. Career firefighters, who are paid with county dollars, staff many of those fire departments alongside volunteers. The exception is the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, which pays some career firefighters out of its own budget, he said.
Like career firefighters, volunteer firefighters must make a commitment to become certified firefighters or rescue personnel. Volunteers attend an 11-week orientation class, as well as hundreds of hours of class and training to reach “minimum staffing level,” Bernard said.
Many career firefighters who work in other counties but live in Montgomery County volunteer here, he said.
The county’s force bucks national trends, which have seen a steady decline in the number of volunteer firefighters, Bernard said.
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, two-thirds of the nation’s fire departments are volunteer. As emergency calls have tripled since 1988, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined by 13 percent since 1984, or more than 100,000 volunteers.
Bernard attributed the decline to the increased demands put on volunteer firefighters, including more rigorous training standards. Unlike some jurisdictions, where volunteers respond to fires from their jobs or homes, volunteer firefighters in Montgomery County serve their whole shift based at their firehouse, he said.
Alan Hinde, chief of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Volunteer Services Division, said the county’s proximity to Washington and its dense population mean standards for area volunteers are high, as is demand.
“We’re going to be called a lot; we need to be good at what we do,” Hinde said. One firehouse in Rockville, for example, receives more than 10,000 service calls a year.
Robert James of Rockville is now a career firefighter in Frederick. But when he was a high school senior in Connecticut 11 years ago, he would regularly travel to Maryland to train and volunteer with Rockville’s volunteer fire department.
James, the son of a career firefighter in Connecticut, would take the train to Rockville every Friday of his spring semester to attend a weekly class at the firehouse, which he discovered by searching the Internet. He chose the program, he said, because of the high volume of calls the station responds to and because of its “live-in “ program.
He slept at the firehouse before returning to Connecticut for school. After he graduated, he moved to Montgomery County to study fire science and lived at the firehouse while studying.
Even though he now works as a professional firefighter in Frederick, James still volunteers at the firehouse in Rockville, where he has risen to lieutenant.
“It’s the best job you can have — you can see the results right away,” he said.
In other professions, he said, “it can take days, weeks or months for your boss to know you did a good job.”
“As a firefighter, you know instantly. The people you rescue, the people you save. ... You know the outcome of your work.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Eric Bernard, who is the executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association. Marcine Goodloe is the president. Also, the story imprecisely referred to grants to help bolster volunteer firefighter recruitment; the association received them directly.