RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — There’s an urgent need for volunteer firefighters across the country and right here in North Carolina.
The Gaston Volunteer Fire Department is taking matters into its own hands when it comes to recruitment, and so is one of their newest members.
“I didn’t realize that I was going to be the first,” said Jade Gatling.
Gatling, 18, will make history Thursday, becoming the first African American woman to graduate from the junior firefighter program at the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department. She’s still getting used to the title.
“My name gets to be beside something that gets to be the first person to get to do it,” she said.
CBS 17 asked Gatling what message does this send for people coming after her. She responded, “that they can do it.”
She accomplished the goal while still attending high school. This is Gatling’s senior year.
“I go to school in the mornings and then I do work and then I come here and do my class and it’s very stressful,” she said.
“About 70-percent of all volunteer fire and EMS people are volunteers and it decreases annually,” said Paul Nowell with GVFD.
Gaston sits in Northampton county. Nowell says in 2013 its volunteer fire department got down to 22 members. The following year they decided to start the cadet program.
“The fire department has to be very creative on attracting members…one of the best ways to do that is to bring in youth. From age 14-17 we bring them in and we start training them to become firefighters and EMTs and point them in whatever direction they want to go to in life-saving skills,” said Nowell.
The numbers show it’s working. Nowell says today the department has 56 members and a spokesperson for the department says it has a 50-percent retention rate — that’s double the national average.
“The fire department in the next county is paid, so while they’re working there and they stay within the community, they keep coming back and volunteering for the fire department,” said Nowell.
For Gatling, her new title is not nearly as important as the job itself.
“This is something that I love to do every day. I could be that person that goes and helps someone out of a wreck or I could be the person who pulls up to the house to help somebody when they’re having breathing problems,” she said.
This evening Gatling will graduate from the program and it’s also her 18th birthday. She’ll be certified in fire and EMS training and plans to eventually become a certified paramedic.