"We are always looking for volunteers," said Sumter Fire Department Chief Joey Duggan, one of the officers responsible for recruitment at the department. "It is a trend across the country where the volunteers are declining, so anybody we can get that is willing to volunteer, we can use them."
Despite a recent recruiting drive, Capt. David Bagwell Jr. at Sumter County Fire Station No. 6 in Dalzell said his station is still in need of volunteers.
"So many of the communities in the county need volunteers," he added.
In the not-too-distant past, a person might have become a volunteer fireman just by grabbing a bucket or picking up a hose, but it doesn't work that way today, Duggan said.
"We want people to become volunteers," he said, "but they have to understand that there is a substantial commitment that goes along with it."
Duggan said volunteer firefighters must undergo the same training as regular firemen.
"The total amount of training hours to become a Firefighter 2, which is a NFPA national certification, is roughly 300 hours," he said.
Though the training does not happen all at once, it still involves a major commitment, Duggan said.
"It is a significant amount of time," he said.
Finding people who have the time to become a trained firefighter while they are also trying to juggle having a family and a career is difficult, Duggan said.
Bagwell said being a volunteer firefighter is not only a "noble and honorable profession," but it also has its benefits.
There is a state tax break just for being a volunteer, he said, and volunteers also receive a small amount of reimbursement for their expenses.
"The benefits financially are not tremendous but OK," he said.
Perhaps more importantly, volunteer firefighters receive training that they would otherwise have to pay for, Bagwell said.
"Once you have become trained," Duggan said, "whenever we have career firefighting opportunities become available, Chief Karl Ford will look to our in-house volunteers to try to hire first because they are already trained and working with us."
Volunteers can also participate as support personnel, he said.
"About a year and a half ago, we started a step program," Duggan said. "We will train them to become support personnel."
He said volunteer support personnel receive a weekend of hazardous materials awareness training, a briefing on Sumter Fire Department and how it operates day to day and a briefing on the incident command system.
"They will also get certified in CPR and first aid," he added.
Such volunteers will be assigned to the station in the area they live.
"There is a check-off sheet the captain of that station will go through and make sure they are proficient in certain skills like filling an air pack, how to roll a fire hose, throw a ladder, coordinate rehab and a variety of things they can be trained to do."
He said at that point they can be used as support personnel, but they can't go into any hazardous situations.
"When the firefighters come out, if they need their air cylinders changed they can change them, or, if they need a break and they go into rehab, (volunteers) can assist them by porting their gear or giving them water," Duggan said. "When the fire is over, they can help clean the hose, load the hose and all those things are a part of what has to happen."
Duggan said the hope is that by keeping volunteers involved, when there is a firefighter class they can take the class and become trained firefighters.
Bagwell said he has spent his entire adult life as a firefighter.
"I don't know if I would have found this career with being a volunteer firefighter," he said.
Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter can pick up an application at the nearest fire station, Duggan said.
An applicant must be 18 years of age, a U.S. citizen, in good health, must pass a physical and must be able to perform in extreme conditions.
Applicants must provide a high school diploma or GED Certificate, a copy of their birth certificate, driver's license, a certified copy of driving records and criminal history report from each state they have lived in the past 10 years and a Social Security Card. Certain other documentation may be required if necessary.
For more information, call Sumter Fire Department at (803) 774-2809.