The Gulf County Beaches Fire Department has been losing volunteers since the hurricane, according to Assistant Fire Chief Bobby Plair.
At one point, after news that the department’s chief, Jay Smith, was moving and would have to leave the department as a result, Plair thought the department might have to fold.
“It used to be that we would get a call, and you wouldn’t have enough trucks to take everybody. Now, you can’t get one or two guys to come get in a truck that carries five people,” he told the Star in April. “If we don’t get more volunteers or some money to start paying people, then we’re going to walk out of here on December 31.”
But now, a few months later, staffing seems to have increased enough to have staved off the closure.
At the most recent Gulf County Board of County Commissioners meeting, Gulf County Emergency Management Director Matt Herring took to the podium to ask the commissioners for funding to cover the costs of equipment for six new Gulf County Beaches firefighters. And Beaches is not the only department seeing growth in the county.
“I’m requesting that we go out for bids, receive sealed bids, for bunker gear for the fire departments,” Herring said at the June 28 meeting. “We’ve had several new volunteers. Beaches has added six new members, Dalkeith has added several members, and we need some more bunker gear.”
All of Gulf County’s 11 fire departments are staffed entirely by volunteers, which is common in rural areas. But with population numbers on the rebound, an increasing number of tourists and short-term residents, and increasing construction, all of these departments, which were largely slashed when longtime volunteers moved away during Hurricane Michael, are hurting for firefighters.
In May, Dalkeith Volunteer Fire Department’s Chief Tripp Barrier said that his department was struggling to get by with their staffing numbers amidst a long dry season that sparked several woodland fires.
“We’re in desperate need of new members,” he told the Star. “All the departments on the north end are limited for help.”
It had been a particularly active wildfire season in Gulf County, and the department’s volunteers were feeling the strain of the additional work.
Dalkeith was among the department’s included in Herring’s bidt for bunker gear for several new recruits. Gulf County Commissioner Ward McDaniel also instructed Herring to include forestry-style fire gear in the bid as well, which the board agreed to in a vote.
But there is still a hole to fill there and in other Gulf County departments, according to Herring.
“I don’t know what’s bringing all these new people in. Maybe we’re getting the word out that there’s a need,” he said. “But really, they all could use as many (volunteers) as they can get.”