By Ben Lawson
When he moved to Seymour as a new retiree, one of the first things Jan Welch did was seek out the nearest volunteer fire department, following a trend that has persisted through four fire departments across 40 years.
Welch did not recall a specific moment that made him want to be a firefighter. His first volunteer position came in 1971 near Schenectady, New York.
“I probably would have been doing it before that if not for my four years in the Air Force,” he said.
Although Welch would go on to cross train further with the Air Force as a medic and work for various hospitals in material management, his desire to volunteer as a firefighter never faded. After leaving New York, he worked in Washington D.C. and Virginia before settling here after retirement, when he signed up with the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department.
“You’ve got to have something to do after you retire,” he said.
Still an active member of the department, Welch works the water pumps during calls. But his primary concern is with his duties as a board member for the department, where the realities of being an entirely volunteer service hit home.
The SVFD has operated on donations with very little county funding since its inception 40 years ago.
As Seymour has grown, so has the department, until it now dwarfs similar services. The SVFD is the largest volunteer company in Tennessee, all the while operating on a very tight budget.
“In some cases, we’re on a shoestring,” he said.
Maintaining the six stations, vehicles and equipment forces some tough choices on the department regarding what protective gear they can purchase and how often they can upgrade existing equipment.
Welch attributes part of the situation to people simply not being aware, despite the fact that 75 percent of fire companies in the US are volunteer. Many new residents are used to having fire services included in their taxes. He indicated that in an ideal world, every household would donate seven to 10 cents per square foot of their home annually.
“In order to get the gear we need to do our job and keep our guys safe, we need the money,” he said.
Welch praised the efforts of the department’s Support Service, which is made up of volunteers who do not fight fires, but assist firefighters on the scene with rehab by providing water and cool vests. This frees up others to fight the fires. They also operate on donations with a limited federal budget, which doesn’t require the SVFD to dip into its already stretched budget.
The department is always looking for new volunteers as well, which Welch said was the biggest problem facing departments around the nation. Candidates like John Perry, who worked in the Support Service while waiting to turn 18 so he could join the department, are hard to come by.
“You need young guys like John to put the time and effort into it,” he said.
Lifetime of Volunteering
By Ben Lawson