Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Volunteer Firefighters Come Roaring Back; Hilliard's Department Was Down a Few Years Ago, but It's Back Now

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Volunteer Firefighters Come Roaring Back; Hilliard's Department Was Down a Few Years Ago, but It's Back Now

Article excerpt

Byline: WENDI ZONGKER

HILLIARD - In 2003, membership in the Volunteer Fire Department sank to three, one below the four required under the terms of its fire services contract with Nassau County.

The county canceled the $48,000 contract.

"Back during that time, it was pretty much the darkest of days," said Mike Dowie, a Fernandina Beach firefighter and former chief of Hilliard's volunteer department.

"We weren't really getting sent out on a lot of calls. Response wasn't that great from the members. We lost the contract with the county and there wasn't a lot of funding. A lot of it had to do with the morale. We were talking about giving it up and closing the doors."

Once on the verge of throwing in the towel, the Hilliard Volunteer Fire Department has come roaring back.

In the five years since its county funding was taken away, the department has grown sevenfold.

It has a 22-member roster including Fire Chief Mike Sadler, Assistant Fire Chief Jamie Johnson and three captains.

In 2004, Town Council started funding the department, and in 2005, Dowie became fire chief. Slowly, word started to spread that the department was picking up the pieces.

More people became interested in volunteering and those already volunteering recruited others, Dowie said.

Dowie enlisted the help of his brother Sean, who is now a captain. Other members were picked up from training classes and rules were changed to make it easier for people to join.

"The rules were that you had to live in Hilliard to volunteer and we expanded that," Dowie said. "My thought was if you were willing to drive in and do the work, you could live anywhere."

The changes continued in 2006 when Sadler became fire chief.

He continued recruiting new members, and Mike Dowie, a state-certified fire instructor and paramedic, helped train them.

The majority of the recruits were young men like Brad Hicks, 21.

"The reason I originally started was because I wanted to pursue it as a career," Hicks said.

"One big thing is that it's a really good way to serve the community and besides that, it's a whole lot of fun. It's like a family away from your family."

Johnson said the problem in 2003 wasn't that the station didn't have qualified volunteers, but that those volunteers couldn't commit time to the station.

The department now has 10 volunteers considered active members.

Having volunteers who can devote more time to the station has been the biggest change since 2003, Johnson said.

And the more volunteers there are, the more time there is for members to train and further their status within the fire department, Hicks said.

VARIETY OF EXPERIENCE LEVELS

After five years of heavy recruiting and training, Hilliard's roster is stacked with people who are cross-trained and are able to dedicate the 16 volunteer hours a month required by the department's bylaws, Sadler said. …

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