Special Report: Burning Out

Posted by: Jennifer Oravet - bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Each day, Americans are doing more with less. Not only is it trimming down the work force, but its slicing away at a segment of society we depend on in crisis.

Right now, there are 1,200 volunteer fire departments across the state. More than 28,000 men and women volunteer to run into burning buildings. Those same people, who already work full time jobs and are raising families, are first responders. Many are on the brink of burning out.

It's a sacrifice that's done without a second thought, if there's enough time, personnel and equipment to respond.

"There are times when the number of personnel is not enough to cover the task, or it stretches them physically and mentally."

Its a concern for anyone who staffs a volunteer department. Combine logistics with a decreasing retention rate and an increasing number of growing communities and the result: firefighter fatigue.

Allan Rice, Executive Director of the Alabama Fire College says, "A number of departments that are teetering on the brink of having to stop providing service, they don't have vehicles, no fuel and no insurance."

For the departments that can answer the call, many times those first responders are strapping on gear they paid for.

Wetumpka Fire Chief Greg Willis agrees, "They are spending their own time, and a lot of times their own money to make their community safer."

For Wetumpka Volunteer Firefighter Randy Payton the job comes natural.

"As Elmore County grows, we are getting more and more calls, more traffic and more mishaps," Payton explains.  Payton says he's left a construction site upwards of five times in one day to work a call, and sometimes he doesn't make it in at all.

"The most hours we have worked on a structure fire, eight hours," Payton admits. "Hotel Talisi. that was eight and a half."

Payton played a key role in salvaging part of the historic hotel through a mutual aid agreement with the Elmore County Volunteer Firefighters Association.  An integral way dwindling departments are serving at maximum capacity, with fewer hands on deck.

"The worst time (for a fire) is working hours, because that's when people are outside the county and are unavailable to help."

To keep the trucks rolling out on calls there's another time commitment - fundraising.

Willis states, "The departments are funded by the money they are able to raise.  That doubles and triples the amount of time they are away to do this thing they are called to do."

The fundraising can far exceed the hours to train.

"We accept donations, host bass tournaments, raffle off gift certificates, Boston Butts. Anything they will come up with they will try."

The skill level of volunteer firefighters runs the gamete. That's because the state allows local departments to set the training requirements. Until last year, all the training was taught at the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa, but that was a major setback for working class men and women who used vacation time to get certified.

Rice adds, "We've put as much free training as close as possible. For the first time ever, there's one fire fighter training class in all 67 counties."

It's an incentive to recruit and retain volunteers with specialized training, in lieu of money.

With the new training as a springboard, the Fire College administration says they're tapping into every resource available to keep a vital organization from burning out.

"I think we are on the brink of seeing communities threatened by fire protection. It's an early warning sign of a trend we want to get ahead of and stop."


The overall performance of any fire department is not only important for your safety, but it can translate into significant costs on your homeowners insurance premium. Each department is graded by an ISO rating between one and ten. The lower the number, the better the department and the better your premiums.

Want to know how your local fire department stacks up in the ISO ratings and how it affects your insurance premiums? Simply call and ask your insurance company. They will provide you with all the information you need.

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