By Morgan Pilz, Staff Writer
(June 27, 2019) The Ocean Pines Fire Department has seen a 17 percent decrease in volunteers since 2012, a drop that has left it with half the number of volunteers it needs for the summer.
The fire department has roughly 45 employees and volunteers, including firefighters, the auxiliary, fire police and cadets. Typically, the department has around 30 to 40 volunteers throughout the year, but that number has been declining
Ocean Pines Fire Department Fire Chief Steve Gruneweld said the situation is a lot more serious than people might realize it is.
“We have about 20 volunteers on the fire side currently,” Gruneweld said. “I would say I’m missing about 50 percent.”
This absence of volunteers might have something to do with the current generation not wanting to volunteer without compensation.
“We don’t know exactly, but we have a strong suspicion that it has to do with the generation that is growing up these days, where they’re less likely to want to volunteer their time for free,” Gruneweld said.
This being said, the Ocean Pines Fire Department will not shut down if the number of volunteers continues to drop, as there are some paid positions. The department supplements volunteer response with 11 employees consisting of seven full-time firefighter/ paramedics, one full-time firefighter/ EMT-B, one part-time firefighter/ =EMT-B, one part time administrative assistant and a career division captain.
The fire department can respond to anywhere between one to two calls a day, to as many as six to 10, Gruneweld said. On average, the firefighters and other volunteers can put in around 150 to 300 manpower hours a month responding to calls. The department also makes around 1,500 medical emergency calls a year, he added.
However, as the summer season continues, it will make responding to calls a lot more challenging, Gruneweld said.
“It doesn’t look like it’s a big number, but when you have your increased call volume, which could be up to 200 plus percent, that’s where it starts to stretch thin,” he said. “Calls are not going down there. They’re going the other way and the membership is shrinking.”
The department could always use more auxiliary members, who raise funds for the department, but what it really needs, Gruneweld said, is firefighters.
“We can always use more auxiliary,” he said. “We can always use more fire police. But where we are strapped in is the actual firefighters, because this is not a job where you get paid.”
This is exhausting work to be doing for free, which is why Gruneweld believes something needs to be done.
One alternative could be to establish a full time, paid fire department, but this could be very costly for Ocean Pines, with a fully staffed department costing anywhere between $2-4 million a year to cover manpower, uniforms, insurance vehicles and other required amenities.
Gruneweld would like to get the association and county commissioners involved in order to bring in more volunteers, such as offering incentives such as tax breaks.
“[Currently], you might get a free meal here and there from the firefighter banquets and Ocean Pines gives us a pool membership, but that’s it,” Gruneweld said. “Several other counties in Maryland are putting out incentives for the volunteers, like tax breaks, paying their water bills and cable television. But the main thing they are doing is tax incentives.
“The different associations need to step up and help retain their volunteer fire department,” he added.
Anyone who is interested in signing up for the Ocean Pines Fire Department can do so at the South Station at 911 Ocean Parkway near the South Gate from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Training is free. Viable volunteers must be 18 or older to apply.
“When I started, this is what we did,” Gruneweld said. “We helped … and we didn’t expect anything in return.”
For more information, call the South Station at 410-641-8272 or call Gruneweld at 302-562-3625.