By Lia Sestric
WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCIV) -- Volunteer firefighters are sometimes the first line of defense for communities that depend solely on their service. Nationally, the number of volunteers within fire departments has declined by nearly 10 percent over the last 20 years.
Colleton County Fire Rescue has 200 volunteers and 70 full-time firefighters. Deputy Chief David Greene says he feels fortunate that their numbers have stayed steady despite the nationwide decline.
"We are trying to do everything we can to avoid that same decline," Greene said. "Hopefully it's not going to get progressively worse."
Greene, who began with Colleton County in 1991, has been studying the decline over the last several years as part of his further education. He says he has spoken to other departments and discussed what they've done to combat the problem.
"I think the cost has changed over the years, not only the time away from family, but gas, fuel for their vehicle and maintenance."
One way the department tries to help volunteers is by paying them $14 for every run. They began to do that about five years ago, according to Chief Barry McRoy.
Colleton County Fire Rescue officials say a big reason for the decline nationally is that there is more training involved now than in previous year. It's a big-time commitment.
"Moms and dads are working two jobs a piece, and the kids have their own agendas that require a lot in addition to being a volunteer firefighter," Greene said.
Greene said they have had some change over in volunteers, but the department was able to fill the voids quickly with new volunteer trainees. Most of the volunteers are generational and have been there for several years.
"We're very fortunate to have the group that we have," Greene said.
Colleton County's call volume has seen an increase that corresponds with the national trend. Greene said in 1991 there were only 300 calls per year, now that number is 7,000 or more annually.
He does fear the future of volunteer firefighters with today's youth who are used to everything instantly at their finger tips.
"Sooner or later the training is going to be too much," he said. "They're not going to be able to take classes 8 to 5 because working full-time jobs."