KINGSPORT — The Sullivan County Firefighters Association has received a federal “SAFER” grant of nearly $389,000 to launch a three-year effort to recruit and retain volunteers.
The money will be used for a public awareness campaign with a simple and direct message: “Join Us.”
The goal is to get more people to join the volunteer fire departments (VFDs) and rescue squads that serve Sullivan County.
Plans are for the campaign to use a well-known celebrity (not yet signed) in some radio and television spots, but also to use current VFD and rescue squad members in some billboard and poster layouts. The former will get your attention, while the latter will drive home the point that volunteers are your neighbors, co-workers or classmates.
According to a campaign document developed by Bowery and Drew Deakins, chief of Sullivan West VFD, the number of volunteers has been declining, at both types of agencies, countywide:
•In the past, all the agencies typically experienced regular turnover, but the rate of incoming volunteers usually matched the pace of outgoing members.
•Now, however, there’s a shortage of new members coming on board — and only half of new volunteers stay longer than one year.
•Most of the VFDs and rescue squads that serve the county are operating with a quarter to a half of the members they need.
“SAFER” stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Web site, SAFER grants were created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations in order to help them increase the number of trained, “front-line” firefighters available in their communities.
Sullivan County has provided an additional $25,000 to help fund the campaign, Bowery said, and state lawmakers Ron Ramsey, Jon Lundberg and Jason Mumpower directed another $15,000 in community enhancement grant monies to the effort.
“That money is specifically for this recruitment and retention program,” Bowery said.
Bowery said he, Deakins and Kingsport Life Saving Crew Board Member Jim Carter went to the nation’s capital last April to ask for federal lawmakers’ support in getting the SAFER grant.
“Congressman David Davis worked his butt off to make this happen,” Bowery said. “He opened his doors up to us and really helped us. He was very impressed with the whole program. He realized this will help the whole First Congressional District. When you’ve got billboards and TV, that’s going to have a positive impact on surrounding counties. Everybody is going to win from this.”
A dedicated phone line will be installed in Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency Director Jerry Fleenor’s offices to field questions about the recruitment effort, Bowery said.
Deakins said while the program’s primary goal is to increase the number of volunteers for Sullivan County, spillover interest will be directed to the proper agency in neighboring counties.
“Anybody that calls ... we’re going to send all those contacts to their home county,” Deakins said. “So this will help their recruitment efforts as well.”
Bloomingdale VFD is the host agency for the grant, Bowery said, but he stressed that the grant is for all the rescue squads and VFDs in the county.
Bowery and Deakins said they hope to officially kick off the campaign in a couple of months or so.
VFDs that serve the county are: Avoca; Bloomingdale; Bluff City; East Sullivan County; 421 Area Emergency Services; Hickory Tree; Piney Flats; Sullivan County #1; Sullivan West; and Warriors Path.
Volunteer rescue squads that serve the county are: Blountville Emergency Response and Rescue; Bluff City Rescue Squad; Hickory Tree Rescue Squad; and the Kingsport Lifesaving Crew.
“Every department has a need for more volunteers,” Deakins said.