It’s a simple and direct message: “Join Us.”
It’s from the more than 600 volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members who give their time — and risk their lives — to answer more than 6,000 emergency calls in Sullivan County each year.
Former Tennessee Titan Aaron Kinney, a firefighter himself and a member of the state’s Fire Commission, is helping get that message out.
The “Join Us” public awareness campaign launches today with a series of television, radio and print advertisements featuring Kinney.
He drove in from Nashville to visit with local volunteers Monday.
“Fire service has been near and dear to me,” Kinney said. “It’s been a lifelong passion for me. I just appreciate the opportunity. Anytime I can be involved and be of help to any community in need in terms of emergency services and fire services, I like to be a part of it.”
The level of enthusiasm and expertise shown by volunteer firefighters and emergency service workers in Sullivan County is impressive, Kinney said.
“The level of professionalism and the unity that exists — the commitment to a common goal — also the commitment of the county commissioners and other elected officials to support ... those that volunteer, the recognition of their importance — that’s something special. That doesn’t happen across the state as it should.”
Kinney said he hopes Sullivan County is an example for other counties across the state.
“This needs to happen throughout the state,” Kinney said.
The Sullivan County Firefighters Association received a federal “SAFER” grant of nearly $389,000 to launch the three-year effort to recruit and retain volunteers.
The money will be used for the “Join Us” public awareness campaign with a goal of getting more people to join the 10 volunteer fire departments and five rescue squads that serve Sullivan County.
The campaign will also use current volunteer fire department members (you don’t have to become a firefighter to help out — that’s one point the campaign hopes to drive home) and rescue squad members in some billboard and poster layouts.
The latter will drive home the point that volunteers are your neighbors, co-workers or classmates.
According to a campaign document, 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 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.
The program’s primary goal is to increase the number of volunteers for Sullivan County, but spillover interest will be directed to the proper agency in neighboring counties.
VFDs that serve the county are Avoca, Bloomingdale, Bluff City, East Sullivan County, 421 Area Emergency Services, Hickory Tree, Piney Flats, Sullivan County No. 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, Kingsport Lifesaving Crew and Bristol Lifesaving Crew.
All those organizations need more volunteers.
For more information visit www.joinustn.org or call 323-FIRE.