Friday, February 10, 2023
Lewes and Rehoboth Beach Volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel responded to more than 10,000 calls in 2022. AARON MUSHRUSH PHOTOS
Fire department’s are not isolated from rising costs. This truck was purchased just a few years ago for $600,000. The same model today would cost $900,000.
The Lewes Fire Prevention Unit makes its way out to events such as Lewes Night Out as a form of public outreach and education.
While the Indian River Volunteer Fire Company does not have an EMS unit, it does get called out to quite a few water rescues.
ANSWERING THE CALL: PART 1
Fire crews more active, fewer members
Local departments struggling to find balance
By Aaron R. Mushrush – Reprinted from Cape Gazette.
February 10, 2023
In just the last two years, Lewes Fire Department’s calls have risen 42%.
The jump of more than 2,000 calls per year is the largest in the Cape Region, and it represents a growing trend: rising alarms, declining fire department memberships.
“There is an uncontrolled amount of development specifically within our fire district,” said Lewes Fire Chief Aidan Gause.
The Cape Region has witnessed unprecedented growth over the last few years, as retirees, remote workers and those who can afford to raise a family in the area have settled in droves. Unfortunately for fire departments, more people does not equal more volunteers.
“A lot of those folks, even if they have some firefighting experience, might not want to be obligated to go into that job,” said Milton Fire Chief Johnny Hopkins. “They retire, they want to rest, they want to enjoy their families and the things they enjoy … so that’s a challenge.”
Almost all fire departments in Delaware are volunteer or what are known as combination departments – companies that employ full- and part-time EMTs to assist with ambulance calls and fire alarms. Wilmington is the only paid firefighting force in the state.
While firefighting and EMS services are largely performed by volunteers, Lewes, Milton and Rehoboth Beach each employ full-time EMS/firefighter staff. And the increase in calls has led Lewes and Milton to expand their career departments.
Lewes now has six to eight full-time employees working on a typical day.
When Gause started, there were only two career staff members working each day. The need to add more has been driven entirely by call volume. Of the 6,935 calls in 2022, 5,992 were for EMS services. Full- and part-time employees handle EMS calls, but they also pitch in to help with fire calls when they are available.
Traditionally, an increase in calls coincided with the peak season, but now Lewes is responding to a high volume of calls April to December. In November, Lewes responded to more than 500 EMS calls and nearly 100 fire alarms. January wasn’t much slower with 425 calls for service.
In 2020, the Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company responded to 3,720 calls for service – 646 for fire and 3,074 for EMS. Two years later, calls jumped to 800 for fire and 4,001 for EMS for a total of 4,801. An increase of 1,081 calls equates to nearly three more calls per day. Fortunately, company leadership identified the need to increase membership shortly before the escalation of calls.
“I noticed in 2018 we were having a problem getting enough people,” said Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company Vice President Warren Jones. “In January 2019, we completely reorganized our membership.”
Not only did they change the mechanics of their program, but also the philosophy. Fire officials said there are two sides to firefighting, the operational and the administrative. Time, however, is a zero-sum game, and any time spent on administrative things takes away from operational efficiency. Associate firefighters – people willing to help but unable to physically respond – provide administrative support and lead fundraising efforts. The new approach has led to 56 new members, 47 of whom remain on board.
Before the 2019 launch, Jones said, the company was having difficulty getting three members on each vehicle. The increase in membership has allowed for an average of at least three per call and as many as five for certain alarms.
The Town of Milton has not been immune to growth either. Although smaller in scale, Milton Fire Department is dealing with the same issues as the other departments.
Milton used to average about 400 calls per year, but in 2022, the department responded to about 460 calls for service.
President Brian Reynolds Jr. said a lack of volunteers, something he says is an issue nationwide, forced the department to increase career staff. Reynolds doesn’t think his membership is shrinking, but it hasn’t changed much. He said membership comprises the same people it has for a long time, and the department doesn’t have younger crews like it used to.
Reynolds conservatively estimates 2,500 to 3,000 new homes will be built in their coverage area. He understands the calls are going to increase exponentially, as well as the traffic to go along with it. He and Hopkins are hopeful their new efforts will increase membership to help with increased calls. Hopkins said one good thing about new homes is that a new law will require them to be built with sprinklers. Automatic alarms for Milton FD seem to have gone up the most and, Hopkins said, a sprinkler system can be very effective if the automatic alarm is not a false alarm.
The Indian River Volunteer Fire Company does not employ nor operate an EMS unit. Serving Oak Orchard, Riverdale, Long Neck and surrounding areas, the company plays an important role in water rescues, providing assistance to neighboring departments and responding to fire alarms in the region.
In 2021, the company responded to 438 alarms. By 2022, that number rose to 496. The company also provides assistance to surrounding departments that have seen call volumes skyrocket.
Most of Indian River’s calls are automobile accidents, which have increased over the years. The traffic situation, particularly along John J. Williams Highway, has created issues for members traveling to the station and again when responding on the trucks. Indian River President Patrick Miller said the increase in people has not led to an increase in water rescues from a numbers standpoint, but he did notice the number of careless mistakes leading up to water rescues has increased.
In the second part of this story, fire officials discuss waning memberships and their efforts to recruit and retain members.