New study to recruit, retain volunteer firefighters

HANOVER, VA (WWBT) - Several local fire departments are getting help finding and keeping volunteers. Those volunteers are crucial to these departments day to day operations, especially during big emergency situations like the recent brush fires in Louisa County.

Now Hanover, Goochland, Louisa and Dinwiddie counties are all now part of a recruitment and retention study through the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association.

In Hanover County, there are about 650 fire and EMS personnel and 500 of those are volunteer.

It's not the intense heat of a fire or the stress that goes along with life or death situations. Studies show that leaders in fire departments across Virginia say their toughest battle is staffing.

"It's getting harder and harder it seems," said battalion chief Chris Hubbard. He is excited about a first of its kind study that includes Hanover County.

"The volunteer workforce solutions program will look at cultural and economic data in 20 areas across the state to enhance volunteer recruitment and retention efforts," he said. "It's a scientific approach to solving something key to many departments."

"We have an access of 500 volunteers that are active here in Hanover County and obviously serving throughout 16 different stations across our 500 square miles, and there are absolutely crucial to our function and systems, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," he said.

Mike Cavanna is one of those volunteers. He's been working in Hanover for about two years, and said one of the things that appeals to him is seeing something different everyday.

"Maybe just a fall, maybe a house fire, to somebody giving birth to a commercial building being in flames," he said.

But what he loves the most is helping people -- that's why he's willing to do such a hard job he doesn't get paid for. He hopes to one day become a career firefighter but says right now, there are benefits other than money.

"I think of it as I'm helping the citizens of Hanover County, and whether I get paid or not, I still get the reward of I've helped them, they can go on with their lives," Cavanna said.

The volunteer recruitment and sustainability study is already underway -- it will take place for about a year.

Do the math, and you'll find volunteers make up more than 75 percent of Hanover County's fire and EMS staff. That number is 24 percent in Chesterfield County, which has more than 130 volunteers.

Henrico County has a small group of volunteer firefighters, but three all-volunteer rescue squads. The City of Richmond has all career and no volunteer firefighters.

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