Belmont County firefighters: Volunteer or paid, the job must be done
BELMONT — While the need for firefighters will continue for as long as there are people to save, a decline in volunteerism has some wondering what the future of the profession will look like.
There are now 22 fire departments remaining throughout Belmont County. Four departments closed or merged recently due to lack of personnel and funding, according to Lt. Kaye Hall, a member of the Belmont Volunteer Fire Department who also is active Belmont County Firefighters and Squad Officers Association.
Maynard Community VFD, Glencoe VFD and Rock Hill Fire Department have all closed their doors, and Barnesville VFD has combined with the village’s EMS department.
“Basically it’s a matter of finances. … The No. 1 factor is money,” Hall said.
Hall has been a volunteer firefighter for the Belmont VFD since 1990.
“I just want to help the community. I don’t want paid for it. I’m just here to help people,” she said.
Many departments seem to be having a problem acquiring new volunteers.
“Now it’s getting so hard to get people. They won’t do it without getting paid,” Hall said.
Volunteering has completely changed in the past 10 years, Hall said, as no one wants to give up the time to get trained.
VFDs rely heavily on grants for equipment and resources, Hall said. Donations made to a VFD help to sustain the station with smaller items, she said. However, for larger items, the departments rely on state and government grants. The Belmont VFD recently applied for a $160,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to replace its 26-year-old fire engine.
“It’s difficult in this day and age to afford the high-tech equipment,” Hall added.
She has applied for multiple grants for the department in order to receive updated equipment. Recently, through a county grant, each department in the county received a $13,000 LUCAS device — an automatic chest-compression system.
“Most of the time a squad runs with two people, so if you have to do chest compressions, you can’t do anything else. … The device, it’s amazing,” Hall said.
The devices could aid the departments in saving many lives, according to Hall.
Cumberland Trail Fire District is one of the few local departments that have full-time paid firefighters. Bryan Hull, a Cumberland Trail firefighter, said he became a firefighter to help people.
“I enjoy helping people. I think that’s why a lot of people do it. It’s a rewarding career,” he said.
Cumberland Trail Fire Chief Tim Hall said many of the local departments work together, providing each other with mutual aid. Some of the local departments Cumberland Trail provides mutual aid for include Barton, Neffs, Wolfhurst, Lafferty, Belmont and Smith Township.
“We work together, helping each other when a department needs assistance,” Chief Hall said.
The Cumberland Trail department has two stations in St. Clairsville. The department has 22 full-time and 23 part-time employees and covers all of the city of St. Clairsville, Richland Township and parts of Wheeling Township. Tim Hall became chief in January, replacing the retiring John Slavik.
Although Tim Hall did not always know that he would become a firefighter, fire service has been a family tradition for generations. His father, Tim J. Hall; grandfather, Gary Hall; and great-grandfather, Harold Hall, were all firefighters before him. All served the Barnesville fire department, where Tim Hall began his career as a volunteer in 2004. In 2006, he was a part-time firefighter for Cumberland Trail and moved to full time in 2010.
Many firefighters in the Cumberland Trail department have family or friends who have served prior to them, he said.
“Fire service has deep traditions and many of the firefighters have deep ties to the department,” the chief added.
Chief Hall spoke highly of his fellow firefighters and credits them to the success of the department.
“They are the department. They make my job easy,” he said.
Last year, in 2018, Cumberland Trail received 3,118 calls — 2,269 were EMS calls, 842 were non-EMS including fires, crashes, etc., and seven were good intent calls. April and August seem to have been the department’s highest call volume months. However, the chief is unsure why that is the case.
With half of 2019 past, there have been 1,468 calls to Cumberland Trail this year. The number seems to be trending downward from last year, Tim Hall noted.
“Hopefully, it continues that way,” he said.
Tim Hall recommends residents keep an eye on each other as temperatures continue to rise throughout summer, especially children involved in sporting activities.
Belmont VFD Chief Bob Mills has been a volunteer firefighter with the department for nearly 26 years and chief for six years.
Like Tim Hall, Mills said his father also was a firefighter.
“I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. … I also wanted to assist the community,” Mills said.
Mills said he wanted to become a part of the Belmont community and volunteering was a way to do so. He went on to say that the day of the volunteer is almost over, in his opinion.
“Younger people just don’t seem to want to volunteer anymore. … If they do, they want to be paid,” he said.
Belmont VFD had roughly 240 calls in 2018, and 65 of those were fire calls. This year, it has had a total of 124 calls with 20 of those being fire calls.
“There haven’t been any major structure fires in Belmont (this year). … Hopefully it continues that way,” he said.
Mills said that prior to the gas and oil industry’s arrival in the region, the call volume for his department was at about 180 calls per year.
“The last fire call we had was for a gas well on Water Tower Road. There was an ethanol tank flash fire,” he said.
The minor fire took place on May 30 where a new well is being drilled on EQT’s Walking Tall pad, just outside Belmont.
Mills said there has been an increase in calls since the arrival of the gas and oil industry. Prior to its arrival, the department’s call volume was steady at around 180 calls per year, he said.