Lawrence County is home to 10 fire and rescue departments, most of which operate with a staff of unpaid volunteers. Each of the county's departments, who are dedicated to the safety of their communities, have agreed to share their stories over the next 10 months.
Caddo-Midway Fire and Rescue Department Assistant Chief Darwin Clark, who works with a crew of 24 volunteers, stresses that the department urgently needs more.
"Every department in our county is experiencing a shortage of volunteers. It's a nationwide trend," he said. "Many departments nationwide are closing or consolidating due to staffing issues."
Clark said this shift has been especially drastic in Lawrence County, where the Firefighter's Association Board once had to limit the number of volunteers to 45 due to the cost of outfitting each volunteer with gear.
"We even had a reserve list with 7 to 10 people waiting to be voted in," he added. For reasons unexplained, Clark said the numbers began to drop in the past 20 years. Though population in the area has increased, it is likely that volunteers have dwindled because many people work 8 to 10 hours a day, Clark speculated.
"People simply don't have the time or maybe they're involved in other social activities or hobbies, and let's face it, there's a lot of work to being a volunteer firefighter with meetings, trainings, fundraisers, etc. Not to mention our department alone responds to an average of 42 calls per month. The call volume has quadrupled in the past 20 years," he said.
Clark said the majority of calls his department responds to are medical assistance calls. With 24 volunteers, Clark said three members of his team are also certified emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and the remaining volunteers have been cross-trained in first aid.
Caddo-Midway's primary coverage area spans 45 square miles with a service population estimated between 6,500 and 7,000 people. Clark described the department's service area as a rectangle sitting on the county line, from the north at the railroad tracks to the south at Old Moulton Road.
"We have a diverse area as far as structures, from million-dollar churches to large stores," Clark said. "East Lawrence schools are also in our response area, along with the southern portion of Lawrence County's Industrial Park."
He explained that the department also utilizes two stations, which are strategically placed on the north and south sides of Alabama Highway 24, which divides the district.
According to Lawrence County's automatic aid agreement policy, Caddo-Midway is also often dispatched with surrounding departments Chalybeate, Speake and Hillsboro. Clark said 911's computer-aided dispatch (CAD) allows the agency to seamlessly dispatch multiple departments at once. Currently additional departments are primarily requested to assist with structure fires and wrecks with entrapments.
"We work well together, and we rely on one another for these more complicated alarms," Clark said. "All fire departments in Lawrence County rely on each other now to provide enough firefighters and equipment to respond properly to emergencies. Every department is short on firefighters."
With fewer volunteers, Clark said many members of his department have to respond to nearly every call. If the department had more volunteers, time could be split more fairly among its members.
Though a lack of staffing poses many problems for county fire departments, a lack of funding is just as strenuous. While Caddo-Midway Fire and Rescue utilizes three pumpers, a reserve pumper and a mass casualty trailer, the department's brush truck also doubles as an EMS unit because Caddo-Midway's primary rescue unit is permanently out of service. Clark said the vehicle was retired due to costly repairs and unavailable parts.
Clark also discusses an imbalance in fire dues and the struggle every department is faced with when strapped for funds.
"Our fire dues have been $25 per year since 1988. You think about what $100 would buy in 1988; now try to imagine taking that same $100 and spending it today," he said. "It's getting harder to pay our bills. I can remember our electric and gas bill being $1,500 annually. Now it's nearly $5,000 for gas and electric for both stations."
Clark, who also owns a business in Caddo, said he recently discovered that the business pays $9.30 a month, or $111.60 annually, for 911 service.
"This means we pay $111.60 per year for the privilege to call 911, and $25 per year to the fire department that responds," he added. Clark said he understands and appreciates that the agency has found a way to keep up with inflation in its fee structure, but he was troubled with the realization that citizens pay so much for 911 telephone services and so little for fire protection.
"We have adopted a new slogan at Caddo, 'We need you to volunteer or pay more per year,'" Clark said. "While it may sound harsh, we really need more help. When we had 50 volunteers we could do six or more fundraisers a year. Now it's hard to do three."
Though it may seem like a pretty bleak picture for fire departments county-wide, it does not take much to volunteer.
Caddo-Midway Fire and Rescue volunteers meet every Thursday at 7 p.m.
"All someone has to do to volunteer is come to one of our meetings," Clark said. "We offer classes throughout the year to help train our responders. We have an Emergency Care Provider class that starts in January 2020 to train responders for medical emergencies."
Not all volunteers who help out at the department are battling blazes or responding to medical emergencies either, Clark added. Thanks to a few recently changed by-laws the department has added support personnel, so if becoming an emergency responder doesn't fit, volunteers may also help out by loading hoses, assisting with equipment or cleaning the station.
Another way to help the department ease some financial burdens is by simply participating in Caddo-Midway's annual fundraisers. Clark said the department will host a Swamp John's fundraiser in March and September this year. His team will also conduct a door-to-door picture drive, which usually occurs in June.
"We've had great success with the picture drive, and we encourage everyone to participate," he said.
One final thing citizens can do to help their local fire department, assist them in assisting you, Clark said.
"Displaying house numbers is a must," he said. "We recommend numbers that are at least 4 inches or even larger, and display those on both sides of your mailbox. We don't need a name or road number. The large house numbers on both sides of the mailbox is how we will find you."
Clark also strongly urges residents to get a smoke detector for their home and keep the batteries changed twice a year, unless you own a newer smoke alarm that with ten-year batteries.
Caddo-Midway offers free smoke detectors and installation, he said. Those who need a detector should call 256-355-0671.
It's also very important to have an emergency plan, the assistant chief added. Designate an outside meeting place where every member of the family should gather in the event of a fire at the home. Account for everyone and never go back into a burning building.
One last request from Caddo-Midway's assistant chief: "Not just in Caddo, but across the county, remember your firefighters."
"What you don't see is all the effort that goes into your local volunteer fire department," Clark said. "Fundraisers pay the bills and buy equipment to keep fire ratings low, training keeps us on top of the latest techniques, and our volunteers are there responding to help neighbors up out of the floor and so much more. These volunteers have a servant's heart; please consider helping or making a donation."