By Adam Smith

The North Jefferson News

GARDENDALE — The Gardendale Fire Department will retire a piece of its 53-year history later this month when it pulls the plug on its volunteer firefighter program.

The change, effective March 31, is owed in part to the city’s 5 percent budget cuts across departments. However, Gardendale Fire Chief Clint Doss said the move will also enable the department to hire two more full-time employees and improve service city-wide.

The city’s fire department, founded in 1956, was an all-volunteer unit until 2003 when the city council voted to make it a full-time department.

The elimination of the program, combined with other department cuts, should save the department about $71,000. In addition to paying $20 per call per volunteer, the department was also paying for workman’s compensation benefits and accidental death insurance for the volunteers.

Right now, Doss said the department has only five volunteers on its roster. However, he said the men have primary jobs, in addition to family responsibilities that meant they could not be as dedicated to the department as a full-time firefighter.

The five remaining volunteers have been spread out over three shifts to work in concert with the full-time members. However, Doss said some of the volunteers are full-time members at other departments across Jefferson County, at times creating scheduling conflicts and leaving a Gardendale shift a man short.

“You never know when a call is going to come in and when they’re going to be available,” he said. “Our goal was always to carry the department to the next level. As volunteers have retired, we’ve tried to replace them with full-time members.”

At last Monday’s city council meeting, a resolution to create three new apparatus operator positions in the department was approved. Doss said those positions would be filled by current firefighters. However, two additional members will be hired to bring the department’s staff up to six firefighters per shift.

Doss had nothing but praise for the current volunteers and the 200 or more volunteers who have worked with the department over the course of 53 years. The city will also host a reception on April 18 at 6:30 p.m. honoring the 11 volunteers on the roster when the department went full-time in 2003.

“All of those volunteers have gotten this department to where it is today,” Doss said. “Nobody questions their knowledge and ability and all of them are true professionals.”

If the city’s economic outlook improves, the department may implement an Explorer program that would give unpaid hands-on experience in hopes of training a new generation of firefighters, Doss said.

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