Fire company offering paychecks to combat shortage

Many coastal businesses are hiring extra help for the summer season. And, for once, the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company (BBVFC) is among them.

The BBVFC wants to hire part-time firefighters for the warmer months. They’re requesting one paid employee be present 24 hours a day, from May 1 to Sept. 30, using 25 part-time staffers.

“Where we’re asking for help is to be able to fund more career firefighters who can also work 24/7 shifts, in order to guarantee we can respond on a timely basis to whatever emergency is in our district,” BBVFC President Stephen Lett had said previously.

The BBVFC tested its own theory by hiring a career firefighter in the summer of 2015, which worked “very well,” Lett said.

This is only temporary solution to get through summer, as they brainstorm a solution to the overall problem: volunteerism is dwindling.

The Bethany fire company uses all volunteer firefighters for its 300 to 350 calls per year. But the BBVFC might have to dangle a $14 hourly rate to lure firefighters to the jobs.

Towns will pay the fee

The $42,824 price tag for the effort was sprung on those who will pay it (including $36,624 for payroll, $4,200 for training and $2,000 for uniforms).

The BBVFC has proposed using the same funding mechanism as it has used for its ambulance service: a partnership between the four communities of Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island and Sea Colony.

Currently, those four entities charge residents a mandatory $53 fee annually for BBVFC’s regular ambulance subscription (a program that is optional for citizens in the district who don’t own property in those four communities). The subscription means those households don’t have to pay out-of-pocket for emergency ambulance service, which can cost more than $700.

The costs, by town, are based on their percentage of their collective population, averaging $5.95 per property:

• Bethany Beach — 2,800 properties, 38.9 percent, $16,659 total

• Sea Colony — 2,202 properties, 30.6 percent, $13,104 total

• South Bethany — 1,390 properties, 19.3 percent, $8,265 total

• Fenwick Island — 810 properties, 11.2 percent, $4,796 total

(These numbers were determined by the Town of Bethany Beach, based on population data from 2008.)

The four communities are in the process of getting town council/homeowner association approval for the new expense. They requested just a summertime effort for now, after the the BBVFC initially proposed a year-round program, which would have cost about $240,000 for fulltime staff, said South Bethany Mayor Pat Voveris.

A shortage in volunteerism

“Volunteerism is definitely changing,” Lett had said last autumn. “There’s still a lot of us that are active and do come out, but it’s more difficult to recruit volunteer firefighters.”

That is a national trend.

“Other fire companies around the country … are experiencing the same problem,” Lett said. “The problem is that there’s just not as many young people going into the fire service today and volunteering to be firefighters, because it’s a very big commitment on time.”

Many young people have families but don’t have the time to devote to it. Many households require two incomes nowadays, so there’s little time to spare for volunteer training.

Meanwhile, most young adults also can’t afford coastal real estate. So the beach towns are largely populated with people who might volunteer for administrative tasks or fundraisers but who won’t be sprinting into a burning building at a moment’s notice.

Volunteers are coming from out of town. Sometimes, the BBVFC only averages three people per truck, depending on the call. A structure fire will attract more volunteers. Days are harder than nights to staff. Weekends are easiest of all. July and August are the busiest months for the resort fire company, whose fire district stretches across miles up and down the Atlantic Coast.

The paid emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are sometimes dual-trained in firefighting, so they help.

“We don’t always get multiple trucks out. It just depends on the time of day,” Lett said.

“Emergency service will continue to be provided. We’re not at a point where we’re at a crisis situation,” said BBVFC Fire Chief Brian Martin. “That being said, we have identified a problem. We’ve been working on it a while. Our volunteer base has dwindled drastically over the years.”

Nationwide, the vast majority of firefighters are volunteers, although they tend to be paid in cities, such as Philadelphia, Lett said.

Only about half of the BBVFC’s firefighting funding comes from the State and County. The other half is voluntary contributions.

Although they receive funding from local towns, the BBVFC is a separate organization that receives funding at the discretion of the municipalities.

But, right now, only about 7,800 out of 10,000 homes are contributing to the firefighter service. (Another 700 private homes do chip in for ambulance service.)

“We feel the County or State should be coming in,” Melvin Cusick, South Bethany town manager, told that town council in April. “This should not just be on the back of our four towns” when much of the fire district is in the unincorporated Sussex County, he said. “It needs to be higher than us, bigger than us.”

Meanwhile, in the fire district next door, the Millville Volunteer Fire Company has gotten preliminary approvals to create a paid ambulance service for the towns of Ocean View and Millville.

A tax could ensure fair payments

“Is there a way that we can get everybody in the fire districts to participate in the funding, not just the ‘Big Four,’ and how does that affect other fire companies?” state Rep. Ron Gray (R-38th) asked.

A fire tax could be the answer. Each fire company could have its own, by fire district.

“We’re researching now how that tax is administered in other areas so we can make a formal proposal,” Martin said. “That is our end goal — to allow the County to do that.”

But the Sussex County Council doesn’t have the authority to create fire districts or collect such a tax from all residents equally. The Delaware State Legislature would have to step in and grant that authority.

That’s why they brought Gray and state Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. into the conversation.

“Going forward, they were hoping something could be done though the State, maybe. They were looking for funding alternatives,” Gray said.

Years ago, Hocker and former state senator George Bunting Jr. proposed a similar program to create fire districts, similar to school districts. Citizens could even vote on finances, as they do in current school referendums. The proposal was unsuccessful at the time.

But the climate may be right to try again.

“Maybe other fire companies throughout the state would have a similar need,” Gray said.

“Really, the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association, at a county and state level, needs to be involved in the discussion, if it were to go to that,” Gray said.

To get more input and, they hope, some support to move forward, local officials are beginning to meet with the state firefighters association and with other fire departments.

This is still the very early stages of discussion. It’s too late in the legislative session to create and vote on a program by session’s end on June 30, Gray said.

What about fire districts that don’t have a major volunteer problem, or the population growth seen at the coast? To pass the state legislature, any future bill would need a clause exempting places that don’t want a new fire district.

“We really need the blessing of all the fire companies, [but] it’s going to be a need going forward,” Gray said. “It’s harder and harder with for people with two jobs to be the volunteers like they were years ago.

“I want to help them satisfy their need for funding. You’ve got to be able to respond to fires for public-safety reasons,” Gray said. “It’s a change for the fire company. They’ve always been able to get along with volunteers.”

With mandatory fees, could residents stop making donations?

“That’s certainly a possibility. We certainly hope they wouldn’t,” Martin said. “We provided EMS service. ... People have been paying, and our donations have not dropped at all. We would continue to encourage people to do both.”

But, with enough funding, fire companies might not have to rely on donations.

“We’ve been here since 1948, and we’re very financially sound,” Lett said. “It’s just where we need some help is in funding to add more career firefighters.”

“It’s going to take a while to get it resolved, if it’s resolved,” Cusick told South Bethany officials. “This is just a stopgap.”