Orange County

NC's volunteer fire departments struggling, says state fire marshal

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey chats with Carrboro Fire Chief Susanna Williams during a tour of Carrboro Fire Station 1 on Monday, April 29, 2018.
State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey chats with Carrboro Fire Chief Susanna Williams during a tour of Carrboro Fire Station 1 on Monday, April 29, 2018.

N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey toured Orange County fire stations this week, hoping to encourage more volunteer firefighters to work in them.

Causey, who is also the state fire marshal, visited White Cross Station 1, Carrboro Station 1, New Hope Station 1, the Orange Rural Fire Department in Hillsborough and Efland Station 1. He also stopped at Orange High School, where students can get high school credit for classes needed to become a firefighter.

“I try to get out at least one day each week to get out into different counties and visit our fire departments," Causey said. "The best way to find out their needs is visit face to face.”

Volunteer fire departments are struggling to recruit and retain firefighters.

“Today you have more competition for time than ever before,” Causey said, referring to sports that young people compete in, as well as the expanding draw of technology. Considering that volunteers firefighters are unpaid and could be increasing their risk of one day facing cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder, Causey said, it’s no wonder it’s tough to recruit.

“It’s a huge commitment,” he said, “and we certainly owe these folks a debt of gratitude.”

N.C. State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey speaks with students in the Fire Tech 2 class at South Orange High School in Hillsborough on Monday, April 29, 2018.

At Orange High School, Scott Hackler, now an employee with the Office of the State Fire Marshal, described how he was a student there before the fire tech program began. As a student, he had to go to the Carrboro Fire Department to take his first fire tech classes.

“The ability to get your Firefighting 1 and 2 classes in school,” Hackler said told the students, “there’s a lot of people jealous of you."

Their teacher, Kent Squires, has a Carrboro connection as well, having served as deputy fire chief for the town before starting the fire tech program at Orange High School and continues to work as fire marshal and safety officer for Carrboro while he teaches at Orange.

The program is one of 43 high school fire tech programs, and Causey told the Orange students these programs are one of the most effective ways the state has of recruiting new firefighters.

All 58 of the state’s community colleges teach fire classes as well.

Earlier during Monday's visit, Causey commended the Carrboro Fire-Rescue Department for its history of promoting women firefighters through the ranks. The chief of the Carrboro department is a woman, Susanna Williams.

Causey also noted that the 69 deaths by fire in North Carolina so far this year lead the nation and are almost triple what the state saw in the first four months of last year. The leading cause, he said, has been space heaters.

“January was tough,” Causey said. “It was so cold, and ice.”

Williams said the leading cause of fires in Carrboro is cooking. Carrboro Alderwomen Bethany Chaney and Barbara Foushee attended Causey’s appearance.

"The Board of Aldermen tries to take a hands-on approach and be around for functions like this," Foushee said, adding the Carrboro department does a good job of getting out into the community and raising awareness of fire safety. “I’ve seen it even before I was elected to the board of aldermen,” said Foushee, who was elected in 2017.

Causey, a Republican, was elected to commissioner of insurance in November 2016 and took office Jan. 1, 2017. The North Carolina commissioner of insurance has also served as state fire marshal since the late 1940s, when the General Assembly passed legislation joining the two positions.

Matt Goad: