PLAIN DEALING — A sign on a fire station door just outside Plain Dealing reads, “Volunteers don’t necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”
Most Bossier Parish fire districts are manned primarily by volunteer staffs. Those volunteers are stretched thin across a parish dotted by settlements quickly growing and demanding more service.
“It’s never enough,” Bossier Fire District No. 7 Chief Marvin Aldrich said. “Not everyone can be there during the same time. When there’s a fire, we take whoever shows up. It’s a thing of neighbors helping neighbors.”
Twenty-five volunteers are on the No. 7 roster, Aldrich said. Although almost all have a connection to the Plain Dealing area, most have day jobs that take them to Bossier City or Shreveport.
That makes daytime emergencies the most difficult to manage, Aldrich said. Even something as serious as a structure fire may pull only five volunteers to the scene in the middle of a weekday.
“Sometimes we can do a lot of good, but we deal with what we’ve got,” Aldrich said. “It’s the same problem that most fire departments in this country have.”
Volunteerism declined across the country as the economic crisis grew, Bossier Parish Public Safety Director Sammy Halphen said.
“People have to work more now, even a lot of overtime. It affects what they can do with their spare time,” Halphen said. “It’s put a dent in the number of people able to volunteer as firefighters.”
Even larger Bossier Parish fire districts capable of maintaining a full-time, professional staff are feeling the pinch.
“There’s always going to be a need for more volunteers,” Bossier Fire District No. 1 Chief Robert Roe said. “I wish someone had a miracle answer. We always spike up and down.”
District No. 1 maintains eight full-time firefighters with two working per shift. His district is blessed, he said, to have about 65 volunteers working in his department, and there’s space for more.
“I’ll find a place for anyone,” Roe said. “Not everyone wants to actually fight fires.”
Support staff volunteers, he said, are critical to his fire district’s operations. Many volunteers stay a step back from the action and provide services such as documenting dispatches and bringing supplies to the firefighters.
Of course, others want to be closer to the heat.
“It’s pretty much everything you ever dreamed of doing as a kid,” Fire District No. 7 volunteer Logan Moseley, 20, said. “It’s fun.”
Moseley lives and works in Bossier City, nearly 30 minutes from his fire station. Moseley joined the team with friends, and if he isn’t working, he’s likely at the station.
If he had his way, Moseley said, it would be a full-time occupation.
“We all want to make a career out of it. We want to support a family on it,” he said. “The most challenging thing is not having a set foundation. It’s not a career with retirement and benefits. But I love it.”
His chief gets it.
“These are young guys,” Aldrich said. “They’ve got girlfriends. They’ve got lives. But they’re willing to be here just as volunteers the day before they’ve got to be at work.”
The money to put his volunteers on permanent shifts, however, just isn’t there. Bossier Parish fire districts are funded by local millage, and many of the towns are too small to funnel the necessary funds.
“Everybody is fighting the same battle. It’s money. It’s expensive,” Aldrich said.
The largest cost for fire departments is salaries, Halphen said, and there’s only so many dollars to go around. Roe estimates it costs about $5,000 to outfit a volunteer with equipment, and the certification requirements for firefighters become more taxing every year.
But as Bossier populations continue to grow, those areas will demand more services for their taxes.
“That’s when those areas will have to decide for themselves what shape their services will take,” Halphen said. “That’s who has to push for it.”
Until then, volunteers will continue the balancing act — and they’ll treasure every minute of it.
“It’s a big family. It doesn’t matter when or where we get called up. We’re going to come,” No. 7 volunteer Jacob Fredieu said. “It’s home.”
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved