New Haven firefighters dedicate decades to community

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By Kacie Goode, Landmark News Service

You don’t find the time to be a volunteer firefighter. You make it. And New Haven’s volunteers have been making that time for much of their lives.

The average age of a firefighter in Kentucky is about 30, with about seven years of service. The average age of a firefighter in New Haven is 51 and with an average of 30 years of service under his belt.

Fire Chiefs Freddy DeWitt and Frank Hall are no strangers to the aging force. DeWitt, fire chief of New Haven’s fire department, has held that position for 20 years and has served as a volunteer firefighter for 40. Frank Hall, fire chief of the Rolling Fork Fire Department, has been with the service since 1966.

Hall said when he joined the New Haven Fire Department, it was because of the community need. At that time, the department served only within the city limits.

A decade later, however, the need for fire assistance in outlying areas grew, and the Rolling Fork Fire Department was established to address those areas.

Both departments, Hall said, share a building, various equipment and even volunteers — many of whom joined the force with the creation of Rolling Fork and, like DeWitt and Hall, have stayed with it.

“We’ve got some that have been in 55 years,” DeWitt said of his volunteers. “We’ve got them, and we’ll take them.”

Despite these individuals’ dedication to the community, however, limitations set in with age.

“People my age don’t belong on ladders and don’t belong in burning buildings with a breathing apparatus,” Hall said. “There are things we can still do, and things we don’t have any business doing.”

In order to keep the departments thriving and available, Hall said, an influx of young people is greatly needed.

But recruitment faces its own challenges, with increased mandatory training, busier lifestyles and increasing demands.

Chris Cecil, one of the youngest volunteers at 21, said he grew up with the department, and at 16, began receiving training and working toward certification.

“My father and my uncle and my cousins were involved, and I enjoyed going (to meetings) and hearing stories,” Cecil said.

Cecil also serves as a city commissioner and that, combined with a full-time job and maintaining a personal life, makes volunteering hard.

“I try to go (to meetings) at least once a month,” Cecil said. “I make runs and stay involved.”

Cecil’s efforts are what DeWitt said is an example of familial influence, which is a reason most younger people become interested.

DeWitt came from such an influence, following in the footsteps of his father. His three brothers and a son also volunteer.

But without the family influence, finding incentive for volunteers can be an issue. DeWitt said the combined departments meet three times a month, excluding runs and extra training sessions. For their time, DeWitt said, the department pays $3 per person for training and runs, which goes into a general fund to help purchase basic necessities other than equipment.

And while the volunteers are volunteers for a reason — to serve the community — the added training and sacrifices can be exhausting.

“Some people think if you join the fire department, all you have to do is go to fires. No, that’s the least of it,” DeWitt said, adding that to maintain certification, a firefighter must now complete 20 hours of training each year.

Training includes lessons to help volunteers prepare for emergency situations — including fire, flood, storms, rescues or evacuations.

But since the 1980s, Hall said, requirements have increased drastically, demanding more and more from volunteers each year. That doesn’t include setting up and assisting with community events, which New Haven also does.

“It takes away from the family; so much that people just can’t give,” Hall said. “You can never be over-trained, but you can’t give your whole life, either.”

Still, Hall and DeWitt said they love what they do, as do many of the firefighters who have dedicated half their lives to volunteering.

“I don’t mind getting involved,” DeWitt said, adding that he has served as president of the Dixie Firefighters Association, is chairman of the local 911 board and is currently president of the Craft Committee for KCTCS, which teaches a fire science program at ECTC. “I like to see what’s going on, to be a part of what’s going on. That’s the main reason I do it.”

Recognizing the need for younger volunteers, DeWitt said he is also working on getting Boy Scouts involved in a junior firefighter program, which he hopes could segue into increased interest among youth.

“If we can get them interested now while they’re 14, 15 years old,” DeWitt said, “once they turn 16, I can turn them into the state and start counting their training as firefighters.”

DeWitt has also been working on making training more flexible for volunteers who work second and third shift, which had limited their availability and hindered certification. DeWitt said by doing this, he hopes to see 100 percent certification next year.

While the aging fire force in New Haven illustrates that serving the community really is a passion for some, the future of the departments depends on expanding that passion into the next generation and getting young volunteers involved in leadership positions.

“We are going to have to be a volunteer community or find something different,” DeWitt said. “The busiest people in the world are volunteer firefighters.”

The New Haven and Rolling Fork Volunteer Fire Departments are located at 362 Center St. in New Haven. Fire Chief Fred DeWitt can be reached at (502) 549-8257, and Fire Chief Frank Hall at (502) 549-3601. The number for the firehouse is (502) 549-1122.