By Jimmie Johnson III
Two emergencies challenged the Lexington Fire Department on Sunday when a third 911 call came in.
A tree fell into some utility wires and caught fire on Jackson Avenue in downtown Lexington.
But there was nothing the department could do. It had only four people on duty: Two firefighters were on an ambulance call on Mountain View Road. The other two were helping fight a fire in Buena Vista.
Firefighters from the Kerrs Creek Volunteer Fire Department, located 10 miles away, put out the tree fire.
Lexington Fire Chief Ty Dickerson said a shortage of firefighters is common for the department, which operates with four to six firefighters per 24-hour shift.
“By industry standards we should have 18 people on duty [per shift], but that’s just not affordable in the tax base in Lexington,” he said.
The department is responsible for Lexington and Rockbridge County, but there’s only so much a staff of 13 firefighters and 25 volunteers can do, he said.
“There are just things that can’t get done on the fireground because we just don’t have the people,” Dickerson said. “In an ideal situation, where there’s 18 people, multiple tasks would be getting done simultaneously.”
The tasks include dealing with victims in fires, car crashes and other emergencies, hooking up water hoses to fire hydrants, and venting hot gasses from buildings or cars, Dickerson said.
Lt. Larry Clemmer said trained volunteers from Rockbridge County and Buena Vista respond when the department is overextended.
But most volunteers have day jobs. In Lexington, volunteers must work at least 12 hours a month to remain affiliated with the department. They are notified of all 911 emergencies, and show up when they can.
“So, we could go out here today on a fire and call for mutual aid departments and only get a few people or worse case … none because people are working,” Clemmer said.
A lack of interest in firefighting is also a factor, Dickerson said.
“How many people want to go to work for 56 hours a week for a starting salary of about $34,000?” he said. “When we advertise, it’s not a huge rush of applicants.”
The department hired two part-time rescue workers last week, but the job search took an additional four weeks because there were hardly any applicants, Dickerson said.
People are even less interested in volunteering, Dickerson said. Not only do volunteers have to complete 160 hours of rigorous basic training. But they also must cope with the same emotional and physical trauma as full-time firefighters. And they earn only $50 every 12 hours, plus $8 per emergency call.
Ryan Walker, a recent Virginia Military Institute graduate and aspiring police officer, said he has volunteered with the Lexington Fire Department for the past three years because it’s exciting and he’s cultivated strong bonds with the firefighters.
“I’m aware of the risks but at the same time it’s worth it to me that maybe I can do something that will help someone else,” he said.
Walker said he has completed over 500 hours of training, including rope tying, ladder climbing and using a water hose.
Nationwide, volunteers still make up about 70 percent of firefighters. But the numbers have decreased steadily since 1986, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The Lexington Fire Department was completely volunteer-based until 10 years ago.
Dickerson said the department has asked the city to fund another full-time firefighter. If the department’s request is approved in April, it would have five full-time firefighters per shift.
That still would not meet the national standard.