Volunteer fire department battles recruitment struggles by training teens

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (WCBD)- Being a firefighter can be a grueling job. Many departments require working 24 hour shifts. When that shift is over, most firefighters want to relax and spend time with their families, so local volunteer departments are struggling to find those who want to take on more work for free.

Firefighters rush out of the station, put on their gear, hop into the truck and race to your aid. In Pine Ridge, they are doing this all as volunteers.

Pine Ridge Fire Chief Ben Waring says, “It’s got to be that feeling of wanting to help, wanting to give back to your community.”

The volunteers are hard to find because they do this in addition to their jobs at paid departments.

Waring says, “The biggest challenge of keeping a volunteer member is the time that they have to give away from their family, away from their job, to keep up with the training standards of fire service because as a volunteer firefighter, as a volunteer fire department, you have to put in and be trained up to the same level as a career firefighter.”

So Pine Ridge is getting creative with their recruitment, teaching teens the basics of firefighting.

One of the teens in this program, 16-year-old Cierra Kaneho, says, “I wouldn’t leave it for nothing. I’m always gonna do it.”

Any high school student between 14 and 18 can become a part of the Explorer Program. They train at the Pine Ridge Fire Department once per week and then volunteer with the pros. If there is room on the truck, they get to tag along and get hands-on experience. They are not allowed into the burning buildings, but they can help with tasks like hooking up to the hydrant, or changing firefighters’ oxygen tanks.

Lead Advisor of the Pine Ridge Explorer Post, James Lewis, says, “It’s very helpful. In a volunteer setting you might get eight people, you might only get two, so if you have that extra person on the truck that can do that stuff that frees up every available hand that is able to go in and do the job that needs to be done.”

Plus, once they turn 16, they can take courses through the South Carolina Fire Academy, preparing them to become a professional firefighter as soon as they hit 18.

Waring says, “Now we are starting to see the benefits of having it. Just in the past 6 months we’ve had three of our original explorers that started in 2013, they started with the first group of explorers that started here, and now they have turned 18-years-old and actually became firefighters in our department.”

The teens want to stick around because over the years they have become a part of the firehouse family.

Kaneho says, “This is my home. This is where I started, this is where I’m staying.”