When the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company saw a shortfall of volunteers coming down the pike, they created a single 24/7 paid firefighter position. Just for this summer, they have one paid employee present 24 hours a day, from May 1 to Sept. 30, using only their part-time staff.
“It’s working out fantastic. It’s made a big difference in our response, and it’s been just a real big help,” said Fire Chief Brian Martin. “We’re using part-time staff just to fill the summer months, until we can turn this into a more of a long-term program.”
In all, they’re using about 40 to 45 employees who are all dual-certified in EMS and fire. Anyone who isn’t air-pack certified can still jump on the ambulance, trading places with an EMT who takes the fire call. That doesn’t affect pay, because both are still paid their regular rates.
“It allows us to be much more flexible in our staffing. It almost guarantees us that we have a driver for the [fire] apparatus,” Martin said.
“Guys and girls, they come from all across the county,” paid a $14 hourly rate for 12- or 24-hour shifts.
The move was necessary because volunteerism is dwindling, especially in a resort town where most young adults can’t afford coastal real estate. And heavy traffic or distance can prevent other volunteers from responding in a timely manner. Sometimes, the BBVFC only averages three people per truck, depending on the call.
So Bethany is willing to pay.
The summer program is a short-term idea, but the BBVFC is working with local legislators on long-term solutions.
That could mean creating a fire district, similar to a school district, where all residents pay their fair share. It might also rely less on donations.
On a grander scale, it appears that Delaware State Legislature must grant Sussex County the power to create fire districts. So this funding mechanism needs approval from a lot of politicians, people and fire companies, even if south coastal Delaware is the only fire district created.
“We’re working on trying to get support from other local fire companies,” said Martin, and they’ve met with leaders in Sussex County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association.
“They’re very supportive as well. So, soon — probably sometime mid-summer — we’ll be making the presentation to the full county association, and then asking for their support with legislation,” Martin said. “We appreciate everybody’s support as we move forward with legislation.”
Sea Colony slightly short
To fund this sudden need, the BBVFC piggybacked off its ambulance program, which has fulltime paid staff as part of a partnership between the major four communities in the fire district: Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island and the Sea Colony development.
Currently, those four communities charge residents a mandatory $53 annually for the BBVFC’s regular ambulance subscription (an optional program for citizens in other private developments), which means households don’t have to pay out-of-pocket for emergency ambulance service, which can cost more than $700 per trip.
This summer, the new full-time fire position costs $42,824, and the BBVFC requested contributions based on town populations:
• Bethany Beach — 2,800 properties or 38.9 percent, at $16,659;
• Sea Colony — 2,202 properties or 30.6 percent, at $13,104;
• South Bethany — 1,390 properties or 19.3 percent, at $8,265;
• Fenwick Island — 810 properties 11.2 percent, at $4,796.
There was no private contribution.
But Sea Colony only agreed to pay 77 percent of their requested share — $10,000 — instead of the more than $13,000 share requested by the BBVFC. That vote came from the Board of Directors serving the Sea Colony Recreation Association (the equivalent of a homeowner’s association).
“There are a good 20 to 25 percent of the community that don’t support the effort, by which we mean the areas that are unincorporated,” said Tom Olson of the association management for Resort Quest and Sea Colony.
“The board’s intent is to ... try and address some of the needs that the fire company has, but also bring to light the fact that the unincorporated areas are not supporting this process and they need to,” he said.
When asked why Sea Colony’s board only agreed to $10,000, Olson said, “I don’t know that the $13,000 number was officially cast in stone.”
“We were happy with that,” responded Martin on behalf of the fire company. “I’m not exactly sure why they come up with that number. We didn’t make an issue of it.”
Olson also emphasized the importance of finding a permanent funding structure for Bethany’s emergency services in the future.
Sea Colony already pays “over $116,000 for ambulance service as part of the ‘Big Four,’ and obviously we do it to support that life-saving safety that’s being offered,” Olson said. “We’re happy to do that.”
The SCRA board consists of seven property owners within Sea Colony.
“The fire company itself is a group of really dedicated men and women that the community should be proud to support,” Olson said. “It’s critical that they provide such an important service to the community. I think it’s important that all the folks that benefit from this service continue support the [fire company].”
To make up the difference, Sussex County Council might step up to bat for $4,000.
Councilmen George Cole (R-District 4) and Rob Arlett (R-District 5) have verbally agreed to contribute $1,000 apiece for the next two years from their councilmanic funds. They still need an official vote of the council to approve a grant from their individual discretionary budgets.
It’s a “Band-Aid fix” in a bigger, countywide discussion about the future of fire staffing, said Arlett, who’s been working with the fire company.
He said it’s not just a matter of money.
“We are a volunteer fire service in the state of Delaware. The question is ‘What are we doing as a state to recruit and obtain volunteers?’” Arlett said. “I really believe we are at a crossroads in many ways.”
A new method of volunteering?
Traditionally, volunteer fire service runs in families, through kids and grandkids. But volunteerism is falling as people invest more time pursuing an income.
So Arlett and another fire company in his district (he won’t say which one until later this summer) are creating a volunteer recruitment pilot program.
“We anticipate doing some new things that’ve never been done before [for recruitment and retention],” Arlett said.
He’s asked fire companies, “‘What system do you have, what programs do you have in place to generate volunteers?’ … The answer I’ve seen thus far is ‘none.’ It’s just something they’ve got to learn,” Arlett explained.
“We do some very basic recruiting,” Martin said. “We have a display sign outside. We’ve also pushed it at all the presentations we’ve given. … Unfortunately, in the Bethany Beach fire district, there’s not a lot of year-round residents who are able to, or have the time to, volunteer. So we’re sort of limited,” he said, but they’re still trying.
So what about future funding?
“I think you have to do both,” said Arlett. “The volunteers want to continue to be volunteers. … These are independent fire companies. These are private organizations. Before we agree to give you more funding, there has to be more accountability. … I think we have to ensure we are doing all we can to receive, recruit and retain volunteers.”
That means new and creative ideas.
“The paid service is a last resort” after trying to rescue the volunteerism legacy.
Arlett said he hopes the pilot program will begin by late summer, then spread through the county and state.
“So many people don’t understand that our fire companies are volunteer, especially the transplants,” said Arlett, speaking of his own initial ignorance. “We have nothing but volunteer fire service, and community involvement is critical for their success.”