Volunteers wonder about future

Published 11:23 pm Friday, April 15, 2011

Future of VFD unclear in Driver

Some volunteers who staff Driver Volunteer Fire Department are concerned their services won’t be needed if the city hires 12 career firefighters to staff the station, the president of the volunteer department said.

Driver’s fire station is currently staffed Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. by four career firefighters, which are borrowed from the Bridge Road station. Volunteer firefighters staff the station during nights and weekends.

Last week, construction began on a new addition that will add six bedrooms and two bathrooms to the station.

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Fire Chief Mark R. Outlaw said the city budget calls for the 12 firefighters to be brought on to staff the new expanded station 24 hours a day.

This isn’t the first time Driver Volunteer Fire Department President Joe Durick has heard mention about new staff. In fact, both Durick and Outlaw said the request for career firefighters at Driver has been in the budget for a few years now.

But Durick said as recently as two months ago, he was told the hiring request would not be approved.

This week, Durick got a much different answer — he was told Tuesday approval for the 12 firefighters was highly likely.

After an article about the new addition was published in Wednesday’s Suffolk News-Herald, Durick said he had several volunteers approached him and express their concern that the new hires were a way of telling them they weren’t doing a good job.

“If we’re doing our job and we’re just as qualified, why are they getting rid of us?” he asked.

Outlaw said the building addition and proposed new staff have been planned to address the rapid growth of North Suffolk and to discontinue the process of taking firefighters from the Bridge Road station.

“We’re certainly not doing this to push out volunteers,” he said.

Volunteer Chief Fred Callis said there are a lot of volunteers who are unhappy with the decision, but he added it’s not a done deal yet.

Durick said if the station gets career firefighters, the volunteers will have less work to do because the paid staff will be the ones responding to calls.

The volunteers would have to wait and see if they are needed, Durick said.

“When we get on a fire scene, we don’t want to be bumping heads,” he said.

Durick said he is also concerned about where the funds to hire 12 new firefighters will come from.

He sent emails to city officials asking why they think Driver station needs 12 career firefighters and why is it necessary to spend the extra money to hire them in the middle of a budget crisis. Durick said he has not received any responses.

“We certainly don’t want the volunteers to feel that this is a reflection of the job that is done when they are on duty,” city spokeswoman Debbie George said. “But with the growth of the city, particularly that area, it is critical that emergency services be available for our citizens 24 hours a day, and unfortunately, that is not the case with the current system.”

City officials have said there has the population surrounding the station has grown by 19 percent.

Callis said while the volunteers are doing a good job manning the station, there are some times of day that fewer people can work, and it can sometimes delay response times.

The most trouble Driver station has getting volunteers is between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., he said.

Durick agreed that Outlaw has a right to staff the Driver station if the system is not functioning, but he still believes things are working just fine.

Ultimately, though, the decision to add firefighters or not will be up to the citizens, Callis said.

“If (citizens) want volunteers to continue on, they need to contact their City Council personnel and let them know,” he said. “If it passes, we move on to the next hurdle.”

Callis said he has spoken to Outlaw, and they agree that they are going to work together to reach a decision for Driver.

Both career staff and volunteers serve the public, Callis said, and he will be in favor of whatever the community decides.

“I’m not going to fight the career company, and they are not going to fight us,” he said. “We don’t want this to be a mudslinging contest.”