The number of volunteer firefighters has increased by 30 percent since the county received a grant for recruitment and retention. Many firefighters start training at the Goose Creek fire station in Franklin. // Photo Matt Blois
By MATT BLOIS
The number of volunteer firefighters in Williamson County is increasing despite a downward trend nationally.
The four volunteer fire organizations in Williamson County have seen a 30 percent increase in volunteers since receiving a grant to support recruitment and retention last year.
Between 2016 and 2017 the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population of Williamson County increased by about 10 percent.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of volunteer firefighters per capita has been decreasing since the 1980s. In 1986, there were 7.9 volunteer firefighter per 1,000 people in the United States. In 2015, that number had fallen to 6.7.
In early 2017, the county’s four nonprofit volunteer fire departments partnered with Williamson County to apply for recruitment and retention support from the Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association.
The grant doesn’t give the departments any money, but offers marketing materials and training.
Williamson County Administrative Fire Captain Stephen Homrich said the grant was essential to boosting recruitment numbers.
“We are reversing the trend nationally here in Williamson County,” he said. “It’s really getting the word out to communities and the public that there’s a need for volunteer firefighters.”
Between early 2017 and August 2018, the number of volunteers increased from 217 to 289.
Homrich teaches a class for new recruits at the Goose Creek Fire Station in Franklin. He has received a new group of at least 10 volunteers almost every month this year. A class in September had 14 new volunteers.
Volunteers sign up for all kinds of different reasons. Homrich said some are young people who want to become paid firefighters, others are career firefighters in Williamson or Davidson County who want to offer their skills.
There’s also a librarian and a sales executive. Older volunteers who don’t want to run into a burning building help out by bringing water to other firefighters.
“When you go back to the roots of how the volunteer fire service started in the county, it’s people wanting to get together and help out their fellow neighbors,” he said.
Attracting new volunteers is the easy part. With more than 100 hours of training required in the first year, it’s much more difficult to find people—often with full-time jobs— who are willing to stick around.
Nolensville Volunteer Fire Chief Brian Moat agreed that retaining volunteers is critical. Firefighters need lots of training and equipment, and they aren’t easily replaced.
“When I became chief I had heard that the county had received a grant for recruitment and retention. That second word is a bigger word,” he said. “It’s very easy to get people to come in who think they want to be firefighters.”
The number of active volunteers in Nolensville was low when Moat became chief of the department in March. Since then the number of volunteers at that station has tripled.
He said the department started a social media campaign to get more people involved, and has focused on retention.
“You have to have the retention in place from day one or you will lose people,” he said. “We’ve been working very hard here in Nolensville to come up with a progressive retention program to keep these people enthused.”
Nolensville’s population has increased by about 50 percent since 2010, and Moat said it has been difficult for the volunteer fire department to keep up. Even after tripling the number of volunteers he said the department is only “treading water.”
The volunteer fire department in Williamson County have an ambitious goal of reaching 1,000 firefighters by 2022. Homrich said that many volunteers would allow the fire departments to respond quickly at almost any time of day.
Anyone interested in volunteering with a fire department in Williamson County can find more information on the county’s website. Applicants need to fill out an interest form and pass a background check.