Local News

Dedication comes through in volunteer fire departments

SEBRING - On working days, Ben Debree drives an hour and 15 minutes to Lakeland for his job to deliver dumpsters to businesses.

After he gets off work and finishes the hour, 15-minute drive home to the Sebring area, Debree has no assurance he can eat dinner and then relax on a comfy couch while watching television, if that's what he wants to do.

The same is true for Scott Mann, who spends his working days delivering mail in Avon Park.

Both are volunteer fire chiefs who can be called out any minute to respond to a fire. That can be in the middle of dinner, while waiting in a cash register line at a store or while fast asleep in bed.

"You've really got to want to do this," Debree said of being the DeSoto volunteer fire chief, who receives no pay no matter how many hours he spends responding to a fire.

And responding to fires isn't all the job entails. Volunteer firefighters generally attend monthly ongoing training sessions and business meetings. Some departments have more frequent training sessions.

Training sessions may involve deploying hoses or learning about how to position fire trucks when responding to a highway incident, as well as many other topics.

Mann, who has close to 20 years of involvement with the West Sebring Fire Department, said he easily ends up working 30 hours a week, and oftentimes even more.

"It's a passion," he said of being in the fire service. "It's something in your blood."

For those who want to serve their community by fighting fires, there's very limited opportunities to do it as a career in Highlands County, as Sebring and Avon Park have the only paid departments. Highlands County Fire Services has six paid firefighters, who help during the daytime when many of the volunteers are at work.

Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Chief Adam Hess said some of his volunteers work in Hardee or DeSoto counties.

Some firefighters travel as far away as Boca Raton, fire officials say.

That's the way it is predominately in the United States. The U.S. Fire Department Profile published in 2012 on the web by the National Fire Protection Association said the country had as of that year 1,129,250 firefighters, with only 345,950, or 31 percent of them, being career firefighters. Most paid firefighters served communities of 25,000 people or more, the profile said.

The National Fire Protection Association also says that nearly 70 percent of the fire departments in the United States are volunteer.

In Highlands County, where most departments are volunteer, West Sebring Fire Department covers a territory that stretches from Arbuckle Creek to Hardee County (excluding the city of Sebring) and recently added on Sun N' Lake.

Since the volunteer department started in 1975 - before that the Florida Department of Forestry apparently did most of the coverage - it has expanded from having a vacant lot with a little carport and a three-bay metal frame building to having two complete fire stations. The newest on Hammock Road was built in 2011 for a cost of $625,000 without any property tax revenue. Money came from a special assessment on houses in the district over a period of time.

They have 40 volunteer firefighters, age 18 to 40, including three females.

With the amount of time involved, volunteer fire department members say each volunteer needs the support of their spouse or partner.

Lt. John Muha, who is with West Sebring, recalled one time be left his wife with a shopping cart full of groceries at Wal-Mart.

"It's getting harder and harder to get people who want to do this," he said.

One reason for that, he said, is that during the last 20 years, the state increased training requirements from around 40 hours to about 246 hours. That's the amount of training the volunteer firefighter must receive before being allowed to fight fires. Much of the training is provided in the county at no cost to the volunteer. If it's determined they need a course outside the county, the county also picks up the cost. Thus, the time is the issue.

"Many of the kids today don't want to put time and dedication into it," he said.

Swen Swenson, fire chief for Lorida, said his volunteer department operates with 15 firefighters. Years ago, the roster totaled 35, he said. Swenson attributes that to the economy and the increased training requirement.

There's been discussion over the years of paying a certain amount per firefighter per call, but officials say questions arise about whether the firefighters would still be volunteers and from where the money would come.

Swenson questions whether that would be the best way to go and says there may be other ways to help the volunteers.

But for those who do volunteer, the dedication is evident.

"They're the ones who protect the community and they do a good job," Mann said.

Although the firefighters don't work shifts at the stations, the average response time to a fire is less than eight minutes, Mann said.

That dedication is evident with Assistant Fire Chief Toby Carter, who at 70 years old and could have easily retired after he moved to Florida, but continues to serve as a volunteer. Carter said while growing up in Maryland he was a volunteer firefighter along with his father and two brothers. Later he was supervisor of a 911 center.

After moving to Florida, he said, he wanted to continue serving.

Although volunteers like Carter don't get paid, the volunteer fire departments do receive some money that can be used for new equipment, uniforms, fire stations and trucks.

In most areas, owners of single-family homes pay a $25 assessment each year. It's $15 for mobile homes.

As a result, West Sebring gets more revenue than Lorida, which covers larger areas, but has fewer residences.

DeSoto City receives about $180,000 per year, but about $90,000 is taken off the top to pay two fire services firefighters and $20,000 goes paying off the cost of buying a new truck, Debree said.

To meet additional needs, volunteer fire departments hold fundraising events and apply for grants.

Tim Eures, emergency operations director for Highlands County, said there's been talk over the years of paying firefighters on a per call basis, putting firefighting and EMS together or making other changes that while having some benefits also cost more.

But Eures said changes won't come about until residents of Highlands County believe that those alterations are needed. So far, he said, the existing system has served the residents very well.

While having paid firefighters could bring some benefits, "you can't buy pride and dedication," he said.

Highlands County provides training that is second to none, he said.

"It's pretty remarkable we've been able to maintain a sustainable volunteer fire department (system)," he said.

Many of the volunteers, such as Jodie Williams, one of three female firefighters with West Sebring, said they joined because they want to help people and they like to give back to the community.

For Mann, situations like one in 2011 where he helped save a boy from drowning - and the boy recovered and later visited the fire department - makes it all worthwhile.

"Without a doubt that's the reason we do what we do," he said.


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