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Volunteer firefighters sought in Lee County

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Wanted: Thirty able-bodied men or women with a sense of community spirit and a desire for a more financially satisfying retirement.

Those volunteers will be needed soon if Lee County implements a proposal to provide more complete firefighting services to Lee residents. The game plan is to add three new volunteer fire stations, which would place 99 percent of Lee residents within 5 miles of a fire station.

Skip Starling of the National Fire Services Office, the consultant who has been contracted to devise a plan for Lee County, encourages volunteerism.

"It's just a blessing for the county and the individual," said Starling, who got his start as a volunteer before advancing to positions as fire chief and consultant.

Starling said most volunteers get involved to help their neighbors and community, but it can be financially rewarding. State-certified volunteer firefighters qualify for a state pension because of their service, he said.

"You can do 10 years and be vested in the Georgia pension plan, which assists volunteers and encourages them," Starling said.

"The payout at 20 years is about $900 a month. ... That's more than a reservist in the Army. You have to be an officer to get that kind of money."

The state pension for volunteers is attractive in a business environment in which most employers no longer offer retirement pensions, Starling noted.

Some communities also offer small stipends for volunteers based on the number of calls and the training that volunteers complete. That issue has not been decided in Lee County.

Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and be able to complete minimal physical requirements to become registered and eligible to participate in the pension plan.

According to Starling's projections, Lee County can add three volunteer stations at a cost of $216,000. The three stations would be 60- by 40-foot buildings with roll-up doors and a bathroom.

Each station would be equipped with a used fire engine with a 1,250-gallon-per-minute pump and a 1,000-gallon tank. That total expense is $204,000, Starling estimates.

Starling estimates it would take about $81,000 to initially equip the 30 volunteers with an estimated $2,700 per volunteer expense. That would provide volunteers with the same level of equipment that full-time firefighters have.

The personnel cost for volunteers would be $39,500 a year, Starling estimates, based on pay of $25 per structure fire call and $25 each time the volunteer attends required training.

Starling said the volunteers would work with the fire chief to determine what hours they could be available to fight fires. The volunteers would be scheduled to be on stand-by based on their work and family considerations.

However, Starling said the volunteers would have to respond to 50 percent of the calls during their "available" times in order to qualify for the state pension benefit.