published Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Volunteer fire departments carrying more water

Jake Shaffner jokes around with Bobby "Pete" House as he pulls a truck out for House to see at Dallas Bay Fire and Rescue Department. House's interest in firefighting led to Shaffner to becoming a volunteer firefighter.
Jake Shaffner jokes around with Bobby "Pete" House as he pulls a truck out for House to see at Dallas Bay Fire and Rescue Department. House's interest in firefighting led to Shaffner to becoming a volunteer firefighter.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

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VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENTS CALLS

BY THE NUMBERS

2007 -2008-2009-2010-2011 (Percent change)

Dallas Bay: 750-808-1,035-1,595-1,692 (+125.6)

Highway 58: 73-59-20-50-5 (-93.2)

Mowbray: 71-97-86-129-180 (+153.5)

Sale Creek: 227-338-236-385-360 (+58.6)

Tri-Community: 1,127-1,390-1,600-1,850-2,143 (+90.15)

Walden’s Ridge: 252-256-295-253-218 (-14.5)

Source: Tennessee Fire Prevention Division of the Department of Commerce and Insurance


HAMILTON COUNTY POPULATION CHANGES

2010 -2000 (Percentage change)

County: 336,463-307,896 (9.3)

Chattanooga: 167,674-155,554 (6.4)

Source: U.S. Census Bureau


DALLAS BAY CALLS

BY THE NUMBERS

Type of call: Frequency-Average response time (minutes)

• Alarm system sounded due to malfunction: 42-3.43

• Building fires: 28-4.04

• Swift water rescue: 5-1.80

• Vehicle accident with injuries: 99-2.68

• Watercraft rescue: 23-7.26

• Wind storm, tornado/hurricane assessment: 6-2.67/1,692-3.92

• Rescue, emergency medical call (EMS) call, other: 1,073-4.04

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Jake Shaffner lays down his head each night after work and studying, knowing he’ll likely be awakened in a short time.

The beeper message will be urgent.

Maybe a house fire, a car crash or a stroke.

And the 21-year-old will pull himself up from his wooden bunk, open his bedroom door and climb into either the fire engine or medical truck parked outside.

Shaffner, a student at Chattanooga State Community College, has been living in Station 2 of the Dallas Bay Volunteer Fire Department for more than a year. His rent is covered because he responds to the increasing number of calls the department receives each week.

Two other men also live in the building on McConnell School Lane. And there are others like them in volunteer departments throughout Hamilton County.

As the area urbanizes, the volume of calls to volunteer departments is mounting, and the unpaid fighters are racing to keep up. State records show Shaffner’s department responded to 1,692 calls last year, up 125.6 percent from 750 in 2007.

Dallas Bay isn’t alone. The county’s largest volunteer fire department, Tri-Community, has seen a 90.1 percent increase over the same period, reporting 2,143 calls to the state last year. Mowbray jumped by 153.5 percent to 180 responses last year. Often the departments have to call for assistance for one another on calls such as residential fires and major car crashes.

Between the 2000 and the 2010 U.S. census counts, the county’s population grew by 9.3 percent, faster than the city’s 6.4 percent rate.

Only two volunteer departments reported lower call volume over those five years: Highway 58 and Walden’s Ridge.

The uptick in calls strains volunteer departments, which rely heavily on community donations and equipment grants. In 2010 tax filings, the Dallas Bay department reported revenues of $327,000 and a $40,000 shortfall against expenses of $367,000.

Dallas Bay Chief Markus Fritts, the department’s only paid employee who began volunteering more than a decade ago, confirms that the financial pressure is increasing.

Fritts was a professional firefighter at Red Bank during the day and served as Dallas Bay’s volunteer chief at night until the workload became too heavy, said his 28-year-old son Brandon Fritts, who also keeps a bunk at Station 2.

In a county with 336,463 residents, state records show more than half of the county’s firefighters, 500 of 978, are unpaid.

Of 1.1 million firefighters in the country, about 30 percent are career firefighters and 70 percent are volunteers, according to a 2011 report by the National Fire Protection Association. The study shows that volunteers usually serve in departments covering fewer than 25,000 people. Forty-five percent of volunteer departments provide emergency medical services.

Many volunteers have day jobs; some of them have families. But each of them is required to commit hours to training and often fundraising.

In Dallas Bay, fewer than half of the residents in the coverage area contribute to the department, said fire department treasurer Mitch McClure.

HEEDING THE CALL

In May 2011, Shaffner packed his belongings and moved to a room at the station. Though the building has a big-screen TV, the only kitchen appliance is a microwave. A picnic table and a rescue boat sit outside his door. Guest curfew is 10 p.m.

That fall he began the Emergency Management Services program at Chattanooga State two nights a week. Shaffner also trains three hours a week with the department.

Throughout the year he’s worked at Orange Grove Center and Southeast Ambulance during the day.

While at work he carries his gear in his car, ready to respond. Then he returns to the station at night.

“I don’t sleep,” he said. “By the time I lay down, we’re getting ready for a call.”

Dallas Bay’s Station 2 has a single bunk room with four beds in it. At one point, at least three volunteers, including Shaffner, lived at the station. Resident volunteers help reduce call response time.

Shaffner says he’s noticed an uptick in call numbers since he started.

Brandon Fritts, who was a welder until the economy went south, said he’s been focusing on his volunteer training to help him as he aspires to become a fire investigator.

Shaffner wants to fight fires.

Of Hamilton County’s 478 compensated firefighters, 412 work for the Chattanooga Fire Department. The base salary for city firefighters is $31,577 before academy and $32,077 after graduation. Volunteer firefighters get no compensation but gain experience, which is useful when applying to a paid firefighting position.

Bruce Garner, public information officer for the Chattanooga Fire Department, said the department often has a waiting list of as many as 1,000 applicants, many from across the country.

Shaffner said he’s already applied to work at CFD. But so have many volunteer firefighters.

Other Dallas Bay firefighters have no plans to leave their day jobs.

Kevin Lewis, 40, a photographer and part owner of a studio on Hixson Pike near Station 2, is one of them. He responds to as many as 20-25 calls a month.

Though he doesn’t technically live there, he spends enough time at the station to be one of the guys.

“I’m too old for it, but I love it,” he said.

Lewis began as a volunteer firefighter while living on Suck Creek several years ago.

“You have to find something to do,” he said.

THE OTHER END OF 911

When the March 2 tornado touched down in the Harrison Bay area, Shaffner and Brandon Fritts loaded and launched the department’s rescue boat, which serves a 13-county area, and headed toward Island Cove Marina.

Shaffner recalls the debris, the overturned yachts.

“We found a husband and wife,” Shaffner said. “The awning that covers all the boats was on top of them.”

Last year the department averaged a 7.16-minute response time for its 23 watercraft rescues.

Speed is essential, Markus Fritts said.

Dallas Bay Lt. Sean Rogers is in charge of training. By day, he runs a real estate office and manages five properties.

But weekly he conducts two training sessions on a range of issues from first aid and avoiding harassment to fire rescues and vehicle extrication.

Rogers has to prepare the department’s 60-member department for all types of calls.

Last year the department responded to 1,073 EMS calls. And other tasks included 5 swift water rescues, 12 people extricated from vehicles, 73 power lines down and 28 building fires.

“The pressure is on the call load,” Rogers said. “As more people move out here, the call load is just going to go up.”

Like Shaffner, many volunteers keep their equipment in their cars.

Brandon Fritts is trained to drive the department’s pieces of equipment, and he’s had to show up solo to calls hoping that others will arrive.

“I just happened to get the truck out by myself,” Fritts said of a mid-afternoon residential bedroom fire. “There were people waiting on me to get there.”

Though call pressure is up, so is interest in volunteering, Rogers said.

The department has to turn away volunteers.

“We don’t have the equipment to give them,” Brandon Fritts said.

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about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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