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Carroll County fire companies struggling to recruit, retain first responders

Three county fire companies are holding events Sunday as part of a statewide initiative to recruit more volunteer firefighters.

Union Bridge, Sykesville and Gamber fire companies are participating in the Maryland State Firemen's Association's second annual Statewide Volunteer Recruitment Open House recruitment initiative.

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While only three fire companies in the county are participating in the statewide event, recruiting is an everyday activity for local departments. Having fewer firefighters and EMS personnel volunteer is a nationwide trend, and it's affecting the county too, said James Bangerd, president of the Westminster Volunteer Fire Company.

Westminster is not participating in the statewide recruitment day, but Bangerd said the company recruits every day through an online application.

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"We try to recruit everyday," he said. "We don't need a special thing for this."

Fire companies in Carroll County are recruiting people and each get a couple applicants, spokesmen with the different companies said.

"Our recruitment is actually pretty good. We get applications all the time," said Doug Alexander with the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company.

Alexander said their fire company is not understaffed, but it's not overstaffed.

"I wouldn't say its becoming a problem, but the numbers are dwindling," he said.

For others it is a larger problem. Bangerd said the Westminster fire company is constantly recruiting and working to retain people. For Westminster, it is sometimes a problem of finding qualified candidates, he said.

But while people will volunteer, the fire companies are also having trouble keeping people. Many volunteers don't realize it can up to a year of training before they can ride on an engine, Alexander said.

This can cause people to leave the company, he said.

Lack of time due to jobs and other commitments also make people leave the company or limit the amount of people available for calls.

People work outside the county, which means they have commutes. They also have to take care of children. Others may move away from the county.

Between jobs and families, there is not a lot of time for volunteering, Bangerd said.

"And that's a big problem for us," he said.

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The lack of volunteers has reached a point where Westminster has had trouble responding to calls, he said.

To make up for some of the short staffing, the company will have EMS personnel, who are trained in medicine and firefighting, ride the engines instead of the ambulance.

"That's really what's helping us stay afloat," he said.

Staffing around the clock has been a challenge for the other companies. According to the county standards, each engine must be staffed by four people. Each company also has a staff of EMS personnel that are available 24 hours.

For Mount Airy, 4-8 a.m. is one of the most difficult times to staff the engines because people are either coming home from jobs or leaving for them, Alexander said.

Other fire companies said that it can be all different times of the day. Daytime can be difficult because people are working, said Commissioner Stephen Wantz, who volunteers with the Pleasant Valley Community Fire Department.

"Daytime is a challenge. When people are out at work, it's hard to get people when they're needed," Wantz said.

Despite the lack of staff, the volunteer program is working in the county, he said.

"There's never a time when no one is able to get service," he said.

Bangerd said the volunteer program is working, but a conversation is needed to discuss whether it will continue to work for the county.

"I think there needs to be strategic planning in the future. The near future," he said.

One of the reasons the conversation doesn't happen is that there is a lack of public outcry, he said.

"There's no public outcry. Right now, the firefighters, no matter what, are doing it [getting to calls]," Bangerd said.

For those looking to volunteer, there are plenty of jobs at the firehouses, the spokesmen said. Volunteers are always needed to help around the firehouse with cooking or fundraising.

Fundraising is a big part of the fire company, Alexander said.

"The thing you have to keep in mind is there [are] many, many jobs you can do in the fire company," he said.

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