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Whitney Downard / The Meridian Star
The Toomsuba Volunteer Fire Department is one of many Lauderdale County departments seeking volunteer firefighters.
As Toomsuba Fire Chief Billy Stuckey looks forward to a hard-earned retirement, Lauderdale County Fire Coordinator Allan Dover must think about how to replace his aging team of volunteers scattered across the county.
"Toomsuba was one of the few departments in the county that would always answer, because Billy was retired," Dover said. "(Jimmy Eckman, who will succeed Stuckey,) works during the day."
Lauderdale County Dispatch typically dispatches at least three departments for each call, whether it's an accident on the interstate or a house fire.
This ensures that enough volunteers will show up and other departments will be on alert in case another fire starts nearby.
"The communities we're protecting are used to a certain level of service," Dover said. "You can't just deny that service. But, unfortunately, our volunteers also have to work."
Dover said that to provide the same level of coverage, the department has to think about reorganization and strike teams, but warned that shifts may mean a slight delay in service.
"It's a matter of trying to continue to provide service," Dover said.
Dover said two factors had contributed to the decrease in volunteers: the lack of well-paying jobs and not having younger people willing to volunteer.
"In the 70s and 80s, a guy worked one job and he had more time to volunteer," Dover said. "Even me, I work for the county, I have my own business and I teach courses at the college and (Fire) Academy. That's time out of the county."
Meanwhile, the average age of volunteers has increased from somewhere in the low 20s to the 40s.
"You used to have people join and still be here 30 years later out there dragging hoses," Dover said. "Now we're seeing (them) do one to two years before they stop or move away."
Dover stressed that the service will take volunteers at any level, but that volunteers willing to go through the firefighter training were sorely needed.
"We have all kinds of jobs, but we need guys who want the training," Dover said, adding that older volunteers could even clean the trucks after those fighting a fire responded to a call.
"Then the other guys can go home and get a few more hours of sleep," Dover said.
While fighting fires could never be safe, Dover said volunteers would be surprised to learn how much preparation went into fighting fires.
"They find out it's a big adrenaline rush but that it's relatively safe," Dover said. "There's a lot of education that goes into it... I mean, you can break your leg digging a ditch unless you're taught correctly," Dover said.
But more than anything, volunteers value the service they provide to the community, Dover said.
"First and foremost, you're helping to protect the community," Dover said. "As for who's going to step up? That's what we're working on."
Stuckey had his own message for residents considering volunteering.
"Help your community, help your neighbors," Stuckey said. "With the medical training, you know what to do if you mother or daughter quits breathing and you can do something. I've done CPR on my own father.
"All you can do is try to help the community," Stuckey said.
Those interested in volunteering can call Dover's office phone at 601-482-9856, leaving a voicemail with their information and location if no one answers.
By Whitney Downard firstname.lastname@example.org