Rabun County Fire Services more than initial thought, volunteers needed

CLAYTON Volunteerism is a crucial asset to Rabun County Fire Services as the demand for assistance, not only at fire sites but also for medical calls, continues to increase.

Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said there are only six paid firefighters on-staff, himself included. A daunting number considering how many calls countywide they must answer to last year alone, RCFS responded to 1,906 total.

A vast majority of the department consists of courageous volunteers who receive no pay but serve their community by offering assistance to RCFS. Currently, there are 160 volunteers countywide who remain on call at all hours of the day and night. However, Upchurch said the demand for more volunteers still exists.

“We are always needing volunteers,” Upchurch said. “We rely on our volunteers for almost every call that comes in.”

Upchurch explained that of the 160 volunteers, there are two different types; support and registered firefighters.

“We have two levels of volunteers, the basic entry level is called support firefighter which people have to go through a 40-hour program that we run in-house. At the end of the program you’ll take a state written test,” he said. “Support firefighters can essentially do any function on the scene that doesn’t involve spraying water, going inside a burning house or wearing an air pack. But they can help run medical calls and help with the logistics on the scene, but they are not allowed by state regulations to fight a fire.”

“The next level we offer is called a registered volunteer. The class runs about 94 hours and we try to offer that once a year if there are enough people interested. At the end of that, you’ll have to take the state test which state officials actually come up and administer. Once you have completed that program you will be fully capable of entering a burning building, wearing a breathing apparatus and fighting fire,” Upchurch said. “Most of the department consists of registered volunteers so they can do just about anything.”

More than 60 percent of the 1,906 calls RCFS answered to last year were medically related which support volunteers were able to assist with according to Upchurch. Although the department continues to fight fires which registered volunteers can answer, he said there is still a slew of other calls the department gets called out to.

“A lot of people don’t understand what calls we’re running. They think we’re just a fire department and we’re only answering fire calls but actually, fire calls are the minority,” Upchurch explained. “Our department runs a mixture of calls but the 60 percent of calls being medical includes auto accidents. We handle the extrication for the county. Every station, except for one, has extrication tools they can use to cut someone out of the car. Any emergency call the ambulances run, the fire department also gets dispatched out to.”

Upchurch said the local Emergency Medical Service (EMS) runs “hand in hand” with RCFS for several reasons.

“A lot of it is based off the geography of the county,” Upchurch said. “A lot of the times our firefighters can get there quicker and start providing care prior to EMS arriving on the scene. The second reason is the more hands the better when it comes to carrying a stretcher or providing patient care. We work hand in hand and side by side to provide that care.”

Every paid and unpaid volunteer firefighter receives Emergency Medical Responder training under the direction of the EMS in order to provide proper medical attention on the scene if needed.

“We basically learn advanced first aid,” Upchurch said. “Airway control, bleeding control and administration of oxygen are just a few of the things we have to know in order to keep someone alive until an ambulance arrives.”

Upchurch added in addition to answering medical calls, RCFS also assists with local Rabun County Search and Rescue/Emergency Management Agency.

“We assisted lately with the evacuations due to the flooding. Station Eight also assisted in the search for the missing man [Eric Tench],” Upchurch said. “We assist other agencies with calls as needed.”

Upchurch said with the influx of daily calls RCFS are dispatched out to, any interested help are welcome to apply for a volunteer position. Though, they must meet a few requirements as required by the state.

“Because of state mandates, you’re going to be given a 14-page application with a background check and you’ll have to have no felonies,” Upchurch said. “Also a doctor’s physical where a doctor signs off on you that you are capable of being a firefighter.”

For anyone who is interested, Upchurch encourages them to pay him a visit at Station One located in Clayton.

“We need all the help we can get as more calls continue to come in. There’s no better way to serve the community. Our current volunteers go above and beyond to provide help when needed,” Upchurch said. “We’re just there to help in any way possible.”