With Fewer Volunteer Firefighters, Jefferson Parish Explores Consolidation of West Bank Departments | Local policy
Decades ago, when Bryan Adams joined the Terrytown Volunteer Fire Department, the force had a roster of about 150 active, certified volunteers. Today, that number is closer to five, according to the department chairman.
“There are no more volunteers,” said Adams, a top aide to Jefferson Ward President Cynthia Lee Sheng. “It’s a matter of safety for the public and firefighters.”
Terrytown is not alone. Across the country, the number of volunteer firefighters is declining, hitting a 40-year low in 2017, according to a National Volunteer Fire Council survey.
On the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, the problem is particularly acute.
Unlike the East Rim, which consolidated most of its fire departments into one full-time force decades ago, the West Rim has 13 different volunteer fire departments.
“Nowadays labor has become a problem in the West Bank,” said parish council member Deano Bonano, a firefighter himself. “We are way below what we used to be.”
Chief Gary Girard of Bridge City Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 said his force has about 15 volunteers, only five of whom are “young and active” enough to respond to the fires. When Girard became chief two decades ago, he had tripled that number.
The reasons for the drop are complex, but officials said part of the problem was that training requirements were taking much longer. Firefighter recruit school only took a weekend, Girard said. Now it takes three months and 200 hours of training to get certified.
“It’s just hard now for volunteers to do this work, spend time with their families and meet the training requirements,” Girard said.
Ineligible for state benefits
With aid declining, some volunteer fire departments have used their tax dollars to hire full-time staff. But retention has been a problem.
Because volunteer firefighters are run as nonprofit organizations, employees are not eligible for state retirement benefits. Often these workers jump ship after being trained to join a service where they can collect benefits.
“It’s just a revolving door,” Bonano said.
“As they drive, things fly off,” said ward president Cynthia Lee Sheng.
To address manpower issues, the Jefferson Parish Council last month selected a consultant — McGrath Consulting Group, Inc. — to study what it would take to merge West Bank fire districts into a single force. full-time who would be eligible for state retirement. advantages.
The study will take about a year, Bonano said, and since each of the West Bank’s six fire prevention districts collects its own mileage, any move toward consolidation would require a public vote.
The move would exclude the Westwego and Gretna fire departments, which have their own departments, separate from the parish.
Consolidation, if it materializes, could lead to the closure of fire stations and the mothballing of duplicate pieces of equipment such as trucks, Bonano said. But the savings could go towards additional firefighters.
Chief Linton Duet, who runs the volunteer fire department serving Lafitte, Barataria and Crown Point, said he would reserve judgment on the consolidation until he gets more information on the “good, the bad and the ugly” of what that implies.
But, he said, “I just want to make sure my guys are protected.”
When Dee Cheramie reflects on the fate of Grand Isle in the 11 months since Hurricane Ida made landfall, her eyes are almost immediately filled with tears.