North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey visited Orange High School on Monday, urging students in the Fire Technology program to stick with the profession.
Causey visited volunteer fire departments across Orange County on Monday, including the White Cross, Carrboro, New Hope, Orange Rural, and Efland fire departments.
He spent the day listening to concerns from firefighters and discussing the need for better volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention.
As the state commissioner of insurance, Causey also serves as the State Fire Marshal. Numerous fire-related programs were in place since this law passed in the 1940s, but former Insurance Commissioner Jim Long formally established the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM) in April 1998.
This office is comprised of six divisions including engineering and codes, manufactured building, risk management, fire and rescue training and inspections, fire and rescue commission, and programs, prevention and grants. Staff handles a variety of different tasks, most of which directly impact the safety of North Carolina citizens and their properties.
Causey, elected in November 2016, works to reach those high standards to ensure safety of citizens through programs across the state.
But volunteer fire departments are struggling to retain volunteers. In Orange County, 9 out of 10 volunteer fighters who enter the fire department do not stay, according to OSFM officials.
Causey attributes the drop off to outside distractions for young high school volunteers and the extent of commitment with the profession.
He extended his gratitude to volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel for all they do, even beyond their normal call of duty, as these professions are dangerous and come with health risks.
Causey called the day’s message “mission critical,” reiterating that he wants students to understand the need for people like them.
The fire technology and safety program at Orange High School first began last semester, in the fall of 2017. It looks to generate a pipeline of students from high school to local fire departments.
This semester, the program has added a fire tech level two course. As the program grows and students are recruited, a level three class will be added. In this class, students have the chance to get hands-on experience, performing search and rescue missions, learning how to change a breathing apparatus, and the importance of fire safety and science.
“I got into the fire service when I was almost 18 and it wasn’t because it was a choice I made,” Orange County Fire Marshal Jason Shepherd said. “My best friend and I were fishing everyday after school. He was like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about going to the fire department Thursday night, want to go?’
“That conversation change my life and now I’m here talking to you and done been in it for well over 23 years.”
Shepherd is a testament to word of mouth recruitment, something many of those in attendance said was the best way to get people involved.
“You have the power to recruit people into this program based off your testimony to your peers,” Shepherd said. “So not only do the people in the fire service look to recruit, but you’ve actually got a hand in that too, probably better than ours, because you have the impact of all your friends here at school.”
The classroom was full of experienced firefighters, most of who began their career in volunteer fire departments while still in high school. Often, these high school fire technology programs were not in place yet. They all hope programs like these will attract young students to serve in their local fire departments and see the profession as a viable career opportunity.
North Carolina currently has 43 high school fire tech programs and 58 community college programs.
Fire Tech programs are looking to recruit a variety of students, though right now, the majority of of student involved are males. Nationally, only 7 percent of fire chiefs are women.
Out of approximately 1,200 fire departments in North Carolina, less than 1 percent of fire chiefs are women. There are no more than 10 women fire chiefs in the state, but one of those women happens to be in Orange County: Carrboro Fire Department Chief Susanna Williams.
“Orange County has more females coming up through the ranks, entering fire departments, than any other county I’ve seen so far,” Causey said.
He pointed to the need for both women and men in the profession, encouraging female students in the classroom to remain in the training despite being the minority.
In attendance was Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Mike Causey, Chief State Fire Marshal and Senior Deputy Commissioner Brian Taylor, Department of Insurance Regional Director Mendy Greenwood, Roger Blackwell with the Department of Insurance (driver and security), Department of Insurance Assistant Director of Public Affairs Barry Smith, Orange County Fire Marshal Jason Shepherd, Scott Hackler with the Office of State Fire Marshal, OHS Principal Eric Yarbrough, and Fire Technology teacher Kent Squires.