published Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Walker County looking for volunteer firefighters

Walker County, Ga., Fire Chief Randy Camp
Walker County, Ga., Fire Chief Randy Camp

Hoyt Callahan likes being a volunteer firefighter for Walker County, Ga.

He likes it so much, he's been doing it for 37 years.

"Being able to serve my community, that's what it's always been about," said Callahan, 64, a retiree who worked for the former Bluebird school bus assembly plant in LaFayette, Ga.

Callahan has lost count of the number of fires he's helped fight during his nearly four decades on the job.

"I couldn't begin to tell you," he said.

Fire Chief Randy Camp hopes to find a few more volunteer firefighters like Callahan.

Walker County Emergency Services, as the county fire department is known, only has 98 active volunteer firefighters -- compared with about 180 a decade ago, Camp said.

He cites several factors in the drop.

More people are working a part-time job in addition to their full-time job to make ends meet in this poor economy, Camp said.

Kids' after-school sports and activities take up more of their parents' time these days.

"I'll have some [volunteers] come up to me and say, 'Chief, I just can't keep it up. I'm coaching my son's team right now," said Camp, who doesn't fault firefighters for making that choice.

Businesses are less willing these days to let volunteers leave work to fight a fire, Camp said, because staff cutbacks have left many running lean.

Things were different when Camp started volunteering in 1976.

"Back then, there were a lot of businesses that would let you leave work," he said.

About 60 percent of Walker firefighters are active volunteers, which means they respond to at least 10 percent of fires and 50 percent of training drills, which are held on Monday nights.

Although they are called volunteers, the firefighters earn some money.

"We call it a bonus," Camp said. "We give it to them at Christmas time for being a volunteer."

Starting firefighters get $500, and the bonuses range up to $2,000 for a fire chief.

They also can earn a state pension, provided they respond to enough calls and log enough hours doing other tasks, such as checking fire hoses for leaks and inspecting structures for fire safety.

"Right now, if you put 25 years in and [you're] 55, it's $875 a month," Camp said of the state pension payments. "That's pretty good supplemental pay."

The minimum service required for a pension is 15 years at age 55, which pays about $500 a month, Camp said.

Not too many firefighters opt for the pension, he said.

"We have a few -- not too many, because a lot won't stay the whole 25 years," Camp said.

The next training for volunteer firefighters begins in mid-February. Those who are interested in volunteering should call Walker County Emergency Services at 706-539-1255.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township┬╣s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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