In addition to being one of the our nation's first examples of community service, volunteer firefighting is a form of community service our nation - including local communities - heavily relies on.
Almost three out of four of the nation's 1.1 million firefighters are volunteers and two-thirds of all fire departments are volunteer.
Scott County is no exception, according to County Developer Joel Evans.
Of Scott County's 12 fire departments, only Sikeston's is completely staffed by full-time paid career firefighters and, being a department of public safety, those firefighters are also police officers.
Some fire departments, like Miner and Scott City, have a paid part-time chief with a volunteer staff.
Others departments in the area, such as the New Madrid city fire department, have a fire chief that receives a full-time salary but also serves as code enforcement officer and building inspector.
Most area fire departments, however, are entirely staffed with and led by volunteers.
"Among these men and women are parents, factory workers, businesspeople, executives and students," Evans said. "They are your neighbors, co-workers and friends. These individuals donate their time for training and for emergency response to ensure the safety of complete strangers all in the spirit of community service."
Many of these people go through the effort to receive certification in Firefighter I and II, fire service instruction, fire investigation, weather watching, first response and even as EMTs, according to Evans.
Anyone who has an interest in emergency services is needed as there is an increasing demand for people willing to volunteer their time and effort, he said.
"With our changing society and its new demands for our time, the number of volunteers is on the decline," Evans said. "Nationwide, in a period of ever-
increasing emergency call numbers, the number of volunteers has decreased by 10 percent over the past two decades."
Evans said a recent USA Today news story cites reasons such as longer commute distances, the increase in two-income families and activities such as year-round youth sports.
"Most departments report decreasing numbers of applicants for volunteer positions and many report dwindling numbers of volunteers," he said. "Decreasing numbers of volunteers stretch those active members even thinner."
James Watkins, chief of the Oran Fire Department, said his department has always seen highs and lows but has generally managed to recruit one new volunteer for every retiree.
"We have a good, well-respected fire department," he said, "but without new members I don't know how much longer we'll be able to maintain the services we provide."
The department recently lost four firemen, some due to time constraints while others moved out of the area. "They have not been replaced," Watkins said. "Right now we're at one of our lows."
Becoming a volunteer firefighter is usually just a matter of stepping forward.
"Opportunities exist in departments throughout the county," Evans said. "Most departments provide state-of-the-art equipment and training in rescue, firefighting, communications and emergency medical fields."
"We're always accepting applications and anyone is welcome to come put one in," said Chris Beavers, volunteer secretary and firefighter for the Morehouse Fire Department in New Madrid County. "We're always looking for a few good people."
Some departments even offer cadet programs for high school students interested in the field or in serving their communities.
Oran's two most recent additions to its fire department have both been from its cadet program.
Unfortunately, insurance regulations have hobbled the new recruits somewhat. "They can not drive until they're 21 and both of these gentleman right now are 18," Watkins said.
While some volunteer fire departments do pay firefighters on fire calls, Evans said the real benefits of volunteering with a fire department include improved community safety, the opportunity for self-improvement in training and the sense of camaraderie and fraternity associated with being part of a group.
Application instructions and contact numbers for Scott County fire departments are available by following the fire district link on the county's Web site at www.scottcountymo.com or by calling Scott County Emergency Management at 545-9189 or 481-9111, according to Evans.