All of his paperwork has been submitted and approved. Now, Joel Hatch just has to wait.
The 22-year-old has signed up to become a volunteer firefighter and his training course, Firefighter 1, starts in June.
“It’s the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself,” Hatch said of his desire to join Wildwood Volunteer Fire Company No. 1. “You’re helping people and it’s something satisfying.”
Hatch, who recently moved to the Wildwoods from California, took emergency medical responder courses out west and wants to add to his training in emergency services. He moved to the Jersey Shore because he has family here and works as a handyman.
“I want to start as a volunteer and work my way up,” he said of his interest in eventually joining a paid fire department.
The search for new volunteers is ongoing for volunteer fire departments across the state, and local fire departments take every opportunity to recruit new members.
“It’s more and more difficult to get volunteers,” said Goshen Fire Chief Joseph Eagan IV.
Eagan has spent 15 years volunteering as a firefighter, something he was motivated to do after watching his sister serve as a volunteer.
“It’s the fact that I get to help people. I get to help somebody when they’re at their worst,” he said.
But he was quick to note that the work isn’t always about dealing with tragedies and troubles.
“It’s seeing the little kids’ eyes light up when they see the fire trucks, too,” he said. “And the adults, too. They’re grateful that we’re here.
Those rewards, however, often aren’t enough to draw new people into the department’s ranks.
Eagan said so many would-be volunteers lead busy lives and have little time for the training required.
“People are working two or three jobs just to support themselves,” he said.
George H. Heflich Sr., president of the New Jersey State Firemen's Association, said the search for volunteers is conducted on a local level, but he sees the required training -- 180 hours of instruction for the Firefighter 1 class -- as one of the biggest obstacles for would-be volunteers.
“People are busy trying to support their families,” he said.
But the Goshen fire company, the smallest in Middle Township, stays active, visiting community events in hopes of drawing in someone new whenever possible.
“Every fire company is low on volunteers. We reach out and try to do demonstrations, visit the campgrounds, whatever we can,” he said.
It is a problem Wildwood Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 has most recently tried to address by hiring a promotional consultant to improve its recruitment efforts, which include visiting Wildwood High School in hopes of attracting young volunteers.
“We don’t know anything about advertising,” said volunteer Greg Neill.
Neill joined the volunteer fire company at age 18, following a longstanding family tradition. One of his uncles, now 81, is still a member of the department though he does not actively fight fires these days.
His family, he said, has a combined 200 years of firefighting service, and some, including Neill, went on to become paid firefighters as well.
Wildwood’s youngest volunteer is about 22, while the oldest active member is about 55.
The move to hire a consultant and visit the high school are part of a larger effort to build the volunteer numbers. In 1981, for instance, the company had 35 active members and a waiting list for membership.
Today, there are eight to 10 active members qualified to fight fires.
Longtime member John Neill, 81, is Greg Neill’s uncle.
John Neill joined the fire department as a volunteer nearly 59 years ago. He has worked as everything from a milkman to operator of a crib rental business along the way.
He said volunteers fill a need, particularly in small towns and rural areas, but he said priorities have changed since he joined at age 23..
“It was a way of paying respect back to the community,” he said.
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