One terrifying night 30 years ago, on a stretch of lonely roadway on the Forsyth-Davidson county line, Scott Routh’s life changed abruptly. Michael Charles Hayes, a 24-year-old man troubled by substance use and mental illness, reached a point of desperation when his parents threatened to sell the moped repair shop that he operated in response to his history of embezzlement. Around 11 p.m. on July 17, 1988, Hayes stepped out into the middle of Old Salisbury Road with a gun and opened fire on passersby, wounding nine people and killing four.
Routh’s stepfather was one of the nine people who were shot that night, and a volunteer firefighter saved his life. The event prodded the teenaged Routh to join Gumtree Fire & Rescue as an Explorer — the junior firefighting program for 14- to 18-year-olds.
Seventy-two percent of North Carolina firefighters are volunteers, according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration. And nine out of 10 fire departments in this state are, like Gumtree, mostly or all-volunteer based. Essentially, if you live outside a city or town with a professional fire department and your house catches fire, a group of volunteers who likely have other full-time jobs will be responding. Residents who live in the Gumtree fire district, which straddles Forsyth and Davidson counties pay a 10-cent surtax to support their fire service.
A man with an iron handshake and a sparkplug build, Routh now serves as chief of Gumtree Fire & Rescue, a role he fills after putting in 40 to 50 hours a week at his regular job as an assistant fire marshal with Forsyth County. Daniel Henderson serves as captain and recruitment coordinator at Gumtree, after putting in his hours at his regular job as a member of the Lexington Fire Department.
“He doesn’t get paid enough,” Routh observes. “He mows yards on the side.” Both Routh and Henderson get the same compensation as the other 41 volunteers on the roster at Gumtree — $3 per call, and they qualify for $170 in monthly retirement benefits after 20 years of service. Outside of one person who works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, no one else gets paid at Gumtree.
Routh points out that the volunteer firefighter requires the same certification as their professional counterparts — a yearlong course of training that requires 200 to 300 hours. Certification to serve as an EMT takes an additional six to eight months.
The kind of person that volunteer fire departments need is someone willing to not only put in the time to get the proper training, but also drop everything at a moment’s notice to respond, and that includes family and work.
“When the phone rings and they’re calling 911, they’re calling for help,” Routh says. “Just because you’re enjoying the race, or you have newspapers to deliver….”
Thanksgiving is an especially busy time for volunteer firefighters. More house fires. More car accidents.
“Then you got to go back to that family gathering,” Routh says, alluding to the psychological adjustment of returning from a potentially catastrophic fire or accident scene.
So why do it? An increasing number of volunteer firefighters are asking themselves that very question.
Gumtree’s roster is down to 43, from 67 five years ago, Routh says. And he estimates that 15 to 20 of his members have put in more than 20 years, making them eligible for retirement.
The erosion of membership at Gumtree Fire & Rescue tracks with volunteer agencies across the state. The NC Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Fire Chiefs is launching a two-year campaign focusing on more than 50 agencies located across the state, including Forsyth and Guilford counties, to address what the agencies call a “critical shortage of volunteer firefighters.”
Routh points to one overriding reason for the decline in volunteers: a change in the nature of work. Large-scale employers like RJ Reynolds that once promoted voluntarism have drastically downsized. Farming, an occupation with built-in flexibility, doesn’t employ as many people as it used to. Routh notes that North Carolina being a right-to-work state, employers can fire workers at will. That makes potential volunteers increasingly wary of commitment.
Routh and Henderson both say it’s rewarding to run into people at the grocery store who remember them from the time they showed up when their house was on fire, and say thank you.
Henderson says he took the training to become a firefighter to increase his qualifications so he could be a police officer, like his father. But he fell in love with firefighting and decided to make it a career.
“Fire service is truly like family,” he says. “It goes back to the term ‘brotherhood.’”
And volunteer firefighters enjoy a connection to their community that is increasingly rare.
“We do a lot of smoke-alarm installs,” Routh says. “We see a lot of people that way. And we have trick-or-treat here at the firehouse. Parents know it’s a safe haven for the kids in a scary world. Interacting with the community, that’s where it’s at.”
Want to become a volunteer firefighter? Visit volunteerfirenc.org.