Volunteer numbers down at county fire department

Published 12:05 am Sunday, May 31, 2015

Billy McCullar is the fire chief at Lake Montrose Volunteer Fire Department. At 64-years-old, McCullar runs the department with two other men, Troy Whittington and Jeff Ketchings. (Sam Gause / Natchez Democrat)

Billy McCullar is the fire chief at Lake Montrose Volunteer Fire Department. At 64-years-old, McCullar runs the department with two other men, Troy Whittington and Jeff Ketchings. (Sam Gause / Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Adams County’s volunteer firefighter chiefs say some of their equipment may be old but it works well. It’s just missing one component.


The volunteer firefighters who show up to fire scenes inside Adams County give their all, but officials said the small but dedicated group just isn’t large enough.

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“My department just needs bodies,” Lake Montrose Volunteer Fire Chief Billy McCullar said. “There is nobody to take over on weekends. Our department has two people who are firemen, and I am one of them.”

McCullar, who is retired, is the only volunteer who is able to give all his time. The other volunteer — Troy Whittington — will respond to fires even outside the Lake Montrose coverage area, but McCullar said Whittington’s job keeps him from responding to many during the day.

That can be a problem when it comes to rapidly taking care of fires in the county that the Natchez Fire Department won’t be able to reach for 15 to 20 minutes.

“I have a 1,250-gallon fire truck, which holds more water than most,” McCullar said. “I have a hose on the back I can have active in 10 seconds, but I can’t get it if there is nobody to help me run it.”

The Lake Montrose department isn’t alone. Donald Johnson, the chief of the Kingston Fire Department—Volunteer, said the biggest problem the department faces is it, “can’t keep people recruited.”

“All the departments have quite a good number of people on record, but when it comes time to show up to the fires, we have the same crew showing up to fight the fires every time,” Johnson said. “We need new folks to show up.”

Adams County has four rural volunteer fire departments equipped with fire trucks — Lake Montrose, Kingston, Liberty Road and Foster Mound. A fifth truck is kept at an unmanned station at the Hardy-Anders Field on Airport Road.

One component of the county’s interlocal agreement with the City of Natchez for fire protection is that the NFD will respond to structure fires and other fire incidents outside the city limits, but volunteer fire departments are to respond to more calls to help reduce the overall call count the NFD has outside the city limits.

Not every department fights to keep active recruits. The Foster Mound department has approximately 15 active firefighters, though not all can respond to every call.

And while departments tend to be short-staffed, Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Chief Eddie Ray said those who are active tend to take a wider view of their service than just their own neighborhoods.

“Those guys from those other departments will answer and help (others),” Ray said. “We are all volunteers, so any help we have is much appreciated.”

But even with the willingness of others to help, the response of the all-volunteer forces who often have other obligations can be thin. Call responses often average about eight firefighters from all departments, Johnson said.

“Most of our calls are between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., and a lot of people have to go to work at 7 a.m.,” he said.

Because  the Lake Montrose Volunteer Fire Department is so small, much of their equipment goes unused. (Sam Gause / Natchez Democrat)

Because the Lake Montrose Volunteer Fire Department is so small, much of their equipment goes unused. (Sam Gause / Natchez Democrat)

“We have the equipment, but we need boots on the ground — we need plenty of people.”

Adams County Fire Coordinator Darryl Smith said he has been trying to recruit firefighters at Neighborhood Watch meetings, at community events and meetings. Volunteer firefighters themselves have been taking an active role in trying to add to their ranks, he said.

“We have close to 50 who are signed up, but we are still looking for the ones who can show up to the calls,” Smith said. “Some do show up to the calls, and we are hoping to have enough where we can have five to 10 firefighters who show up from one area to another, but whoever signs up we want to show up for whatever area they are covering.”

The problem at Lake Montrose isn’t sign-ups, but follow through, McCullar said.

“We have had three people sign up at the Neighborhood Watch meeting, but they have not signed a form to be a part of the fire department,” he said. “You can’t put just anybody in that truck, and you can’t just give somebody a key to the building that only comes once every five months.”

Smith said the volunteer firefighting program is just that, volunteer, but it does offer one small incentive, insurance coverage through membership in the Mississippi Fire Association.

But ultimately commitment is  a personal matter.

“Once they join, if they are serious about committing to helping their community, they will.” Smith said. “We are hoping the ones who join will help out in their community.”

And helping the community is about more than just the feeling of doing something good. It’s about watching your own back, McCullar said.

“I try to tell (people) that when your house catches on fire, you have no way of getting this truck there to cover it if I am not able to get there,” he said. “In the Lake Montrose area, it’s a lot of trailers and old cypress wood houses, and it doesn’t take long for them to catch fire and take off.”

Even if a volunteer isn’t able to directly fight a fire, they can help in other ways, by helping with hoses, putting equipment back on trucks, giving first aid or serving as safety officers, Smith said.

Even with the recruiting issues, the Kingston fire department has a rating from the Mississippi State Rating Bureau — the only volunteer fire department to have one.

But Johnson said the department will have to get a new fire truck in the coming years to maintain that rating. The rating requires the station’s fire apparatus be newer than 10 years old, while the Kingston truck was purchased brand new in 1992.

“It works as good as ever, it’s just the age of the truck itself that is the issue,” Johnson said.

The Lake Montrose truck is likewise old, but McCullar said aside from recently having to replace its fuel pump it is still in good shape.

“As long as it puts water out at 150 pounds of pressure, I don’t have any problems he said.”

The Foster Mound department’s truck is a 2000 model and — with the exception of two new recruits who have taken an active interest — all of the volunteers have turnout gear, Ray said.

The big addition to the Foster Mound inventory coming this year will be a pickup truck outfitted to fight brush fires, which will be able to access fields the heavier fire equipment might not be able to enter without getting stuck.

“That is going to make a huge difference,” Ray said. “We had a bunch of grass fires back in February, March and April, and at one point over 50 acres burned up in Sedgefield.”

Smith said the brush trucks are given through a firefighter program through the state forestry commission.  If approved for the program, the trucks only cost the county $100 apiece, provided they are painted and in service within a certain amount of time.

Those who wish to serve as volunteer fire fighters should contact Smith at 601-442-7021 or 601-443-7862, or get in touch with their local departments.