Representatives from at least 12 fire stations from several counties met Feb. 15 in the Fulton County Courthouse to clear up any confusion regarding rural volunteer firefighter training and to discuss forming a North Central Arkansas Fire District.
State Rep. Curren Everett was also on hand during the first part of the meeting. Everett and retired ranger Joe Smith passed out several copies of the new bill that will change training requirements if it passes. "It's just a copy right now," Everett said. He said the bill would really affect rural fire departments.
Apparently, much of the confusion is about the current certified training requirements. A volunteer firefighter has to put in a minimum of six hours per quarter and have 24 hours of certified training per year. However, according to Oakland-Promise Land Fire Chief Mike Scrima, there had been no clear definition of "certified training" until recently.
According to Scrima, the training requirements are an effort to get volunteer rural fire departments up to par with bigger, paid fire departments. The problem with doing this, Scrima said, is that volunteers don't get paid.
James Rubow, assistant director of the Arkansas Fire Academy, and Kevin Miller, a representative from the Arkansas State Firefighters Association, explained that certified training is any class taught by a certified training officer (CTO) that is approved by the Arkansas Fire Academy.
Scrima explained that the problem with training is that volunteers usually have jobs and family that sometimes take priority over training. This problem makes it difficult to recruit new and younger volunteers. "As a fire chief, I have to sometimes work at their (the firefighters') convenience," Scrima said.
"The average age of a volunteer firefighter in my department is 64," Scrima said. He said age is an issue because those who come to the Ozarks to retire want to volunteer, but they don't want another full-time job.
"The increased demands on the volunteer fire departments is leading to a crisis in recruiting, training and retaining volunteer firefighters," Scrima said. This affects the community and residents with homeowners insurance if a volunteer fire department cannot train enough and get enough money to stay in operation.
"In our area, it's becoming very common that the fire department doesn't have enough fire personnel to respond," Scrima said. "We went from 42 people in our department to 29."
However, having a certain number of certifiably trained volunteer firefighters qualifies fire departments to receive Act 833 money from the state. "Any rural fire department needs that money," Scrima said.
The training standards make getting certification difficult. Scrima said there are many rural fire departments that are not certified and don't receive Act 833 money.
"The original intent for Act 833 money was for rural fire departments," Miller said.
With some of the confusion about training requirements cleared up, Miller spoke about the Arkansas State Firefighters Association and the benefits of forming a district and becoming a member of the association. Miller explained that there are 10 fire districts in Arkansas. The North Central Arkansas Fire District will consist of Fulton, Baxter, Marion, Searcy, Stone, Pope, Van Buren, Cleburne and Conway counties. Miller said association members will receive discounts on AFLAC insurance and mortuary benefits as well as a $4,000 accidental death and dismemberment insurance. For the North Cental Arkansas Fire District to become active, a chairman must be elected.
The election of a chairman and other issues fire department representatives must discuss on continuing to form the North Central Arkansas Fire District will be discussed in their next meeting, which has yet to be announced.