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Jefferson firefighters are a special breed
Volunteer force works to keep city safe, minus pay
Randal Reed, left, Bobby Gooch, center, and Parker Griffith of the Jefferson Fire Department have all served as volunteers for more than 20 years each. - photo by Brandee Thomas

JEFFERSON — If someone offered you $1,000 to run into a burning building, would you take it?

What if that offer dropped to $500?

Most people would balk at the offer, but believe it or not, there is a group of men and women who gladly rush into a building engulfed in flames every chance they get. And they do it for free.

These people — volunteer firefighters — make up the bulk of the firefighter personnel in the United States. According to the National Fire Protection Association, nearly 830,000 of the nation’s 1.1 million firefighters are volunteers.

"It’s a special breed of folks who enjoy doing this," said Bobby Gooch, who is the chief of the Jefferson Fire Department. "Like they say it takes a special kind of person to be a teacher, the same is true about volunteer fire fighting."

Jackson County is one of many communities that is serviced by a mostly volunteer department. Each of the county’s 11 fire departments are volunteer departments, although the department has some individuals who are considered career firefighters — meaning they get paid.

The National Fire Protection Association reports that 87 percent of all U.S. fire departments are made up of mostly volunteer firefighters, while just 8 percent are like Hall County, where only career firefighters are used.

Outside of pay, there really aren’t that many differences between a volunteer and career firefighter, some volunteers say.

"In Georgia, (volunteers) are required to take a lot of the same training as paid firefighters," said Parker Griffith, who is a captain with the Jefferson Fire Department and the chief of the Arcade Fire Department. "We are required to maintain at least eight hours worth of training every month."

Being a volunteer firefighter also requires a big time commitment. Whereas career
firefighters often work 24 hours on-duty followed by 48 hours off-duty, most volunteer firefighters are always on call.

Each of Jefferson’s volunteer firefighters carries a pager 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whenever there is a fire, they each get a page and either head directly to the scene of the emergency or to the station to pick up one of the emergency vehicles.

"Being a volunteer firefighter takes a lot of time away from your ‘real’ job," Gooch said. "Luckily, most of our men and women have employers that are lenient with them and understand when they need to leave suddenly. And our families make sacrifices, too. Being a volunteer firefighter deprives them of a lot of family time."

On average, Gooch says the Jefferson department responds to about 400 emergency calls each year.

According to Griffith, having a largely volunteer staff saves the city about $1 million each year.

During the day, there generally is two people on duty at one of the fire stations in Jefferson, so response times are comparable to that of a nonvolunteer station, Gooch says.

"Our response time at night is a little slower than a career department because we don’t have anyone here, so someone has to come here and get a truck, but that’s something we’re working on," he said.

In situations where it isn’t necessary to have a water pump, Griffith says the volunteer’s response time to the scene is sometimes better than a station served by an all-paid staff.

"Even if there is a fire, the first thing we do is search the building, and you don’t need a (fire truck) for that," Griffith said. "And since most of us are out in the community anyway, we can get to a scene first a lot of times."

Being a first responder is part of the reason why many volunteers decided to join the department.

"I’ve wanted to be a firefighter since I was a little boy," said David Haney, who has been a volunteer firefighter for the past four years.

"Being first on the scene can be kind of scary, but it makes you feel good to know that you can be there to help someone."

Although Gooch has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 29 years and Griffith has more than 23 years’ experience, they say that most volunteer firefighters aren’t staying with the department that long anymore.

"A lot of people think they want to be a volunteer firefighter, but then we put them in the training and they freak out. It’s not for everybody," Griffith said. "And it really is a big time commitment. If you don’t have a passion for it in your heart, you’ll never make it as a volunteer."

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