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Finding firefighters tough as Pines population ages

Joe Enste joined the OPVFD as a cadet in 2003 at age 15. Today, he is deputy fire marshal for the Ocean City Fire Department and continues to serve the OPVFD as a lieutenant, IT manager and public information officer.

By Cindy Hoffman

Staff Reporter

(March 16, 2023) Like many other communities across the country with aging populations, Ocean Pines, where the average age is 65, recruiting volunteer firefighters is becoming increasingly challenging.

“This is a difficult demographic to recruit from,” said Dave VanGasbeck, president of the Ocean Pines Volunteer Fire Department (OPVFD).

Some other fire departments may be able to recruit from diverse populations that include many young families and a sizable number of high school students, but Ocean Pines isn’t one of them.

VanGasbeck came from Waldorf Volunteer Fire Department, which had 435 members.

“We always had a lot of young people joining the department,” he said. “We are just the opposite here; we are primarily a retirement community.  The average age is 65. People that age are not joining the fire department.”

Ocean Pines is a combination volunteer fire department. That means the community relies on both volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT) as well as career staff who work for the fire department to handle anything from a major house fire, of which there have been a significant number over the past few years, to checking on gas leaks and responding to a health crisis.

Currently, the OPVFD has about 50 volunteers and 18 full and part time career staff.

VanGasbeck said the department gets few cadets. Statistically, when cadets or young members come in, only 5 percent make it to retirement in the volunteer fire service.

One exception is Joe Enste, 35, who joined the OPVFD as a cadet in 2003 at age 15 because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks two years earlier.

 “I remember, as a high school freshman, seeing all of the news coverage and feeling like I wished there was something I could be doing to help.”

Today, Enste is deputy fire marshal for the Ocean City Fire Department and continues to serve the OPVFD as a lieutenant, IT manager and public information officer. He is also a member of the department’s board of directors.

Most new members, however, come to Ocean Pines from other departments once they retire or relocate to the coast.

“We have firefighters from Baltimore City and County, Montgomery County and some members from DC,” VanGasbeck said. “These folks are coming into this community in their 50s, so their active shelf-life is very short, when you consider a firefighter has to carry 80 pounds of equipment on their back into burning buildings.”

“We are performing at the highest level, with a full staff of firefighters, but we are always looking for volunteers to grow into the fire service,” he said.

Recognizing that Ocean Pines is not alone in its recruitment challenges, VanGasbeck believes that the natural evolution in the U.S. is going from all volunteers through a combination of volunteer and career to, in many cases, a career department.

“The bottom line is, as your volunteers deplete, you eventually get to the point of needing more career staff in the fire department. We are a combination department now. We started with one paid paramedic and all volunteers,” he said.

“The fact that the South Station is sorely in need of renovation or replacement does not help our limited ability to recruit,’ VanGasbeck added.

Being a volunteer firefighter/EMT does bring with it some benefits. Maryland offers a state income tax deduction, retirement benefits, scholarship opportunities and professional development and leadership training and more.

For Enste, the personal benefits are two-fold. “I get an incredible sense of accomplishment and pride being there for our community when they need us most.”

“Additionally, when I talk to members of our community and they tell me that they have recently checked their smoke alarms or had conversations with their kids about fire safety because of the programs we have initiated, I know we are making a difference and doing our part to make the community safer.”

“I also really enjoy and appreciate the social aspect of being involved in the fire department. There are several of us with young kids and families and we have a great support system.”

Enste’s six-year-old son, Tripp, is already invested in the department’s operations.

“He loves to talk shop when I get back from a call, asking what fire truck we took, did I drive it or what was my job, and was anyone hurt.”

“He does get worried about my and all of the firefighters’ safety so we will regularly talk about the training we participate in and the personal protective equipment we wear to keep us prepared and safe,” he said.

“Ocean Pines is changing.  We do have more and more working families moving in, which increases the candidate pool,” Van Gasbeck said.

“We’re ready and wanting to welcome you into our department,” said Enste. “We provide all the training for free; no experience is necessary and no matter your background, we have opportunities for everyone.”