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Grant Program Offers Boost As Rural Fire Departments Battle Recruitment Challenges

COLLEGE STATION, Texas: The Plantersville-Stoneham Volunteer Fire Department sits across from the town’s Baptist church on F.M. 1774 and is surrounded mainly by pastureland. The community, a quiet railroad town in southern Grimes County, measures its population in the hundreds.

But Plantersville isn’t isolated. The nearby Texas Renaissance Festival draws thousands of people each fall. Sprawling Conroe is only a 30-minute away, and urbanization is just down the road in other parts of neighboring Montgomery County.

Fire Chief Jessica Bomar believes the growth may be moving toward the community faster than many people realize, and she is working to position and prepare her department for the additional calls for service the future holds.

Staffing the rural department hasn’t always been easy. When Bomar became chief in December, there were eight volunteers. In just a few months, the department added five new members through a community outreach campaign that included recruitment information at community events.

“We would love to be able to respond to medical calls,” Bomar said. “We just need more members.”

A shortage of volunteers is a challenge facing rural fire departments across the state. To help combat the issue, Texas A&M Forest Service recently introduced a new grant to help departments bolster staffing and enhance community fire protection.

The Volunteer Recruitment Resources grant is available through the Rural Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program to specific volunteer fire departments that serve rural communities or areas with a population of 10,000 or less and meet other basic federal requirements.

They can use the $3,000 grants to purchase banners, signs, billboards, flyers, postcards, and other approved items. The grants are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and nearly $300,000 has been awarded to more than 100 departments so far. The U.S. Forest Service provides funding for the program.

Jason Keiningham, Texas A&M Forest Service Capacity Building Department Head, said the pilot project is an attempt to help departments attract people dedicated to serving their communities, and he anticipates additional funding to become available next fiscal year.

“Volunteer fire departments are the front line of defense for many communities, and we recognize the challenges they face in recruiting new members,” he said. “Through these grants, we hope to inspire individuals to step forward and make a meaningful difference in their community.”

Bomar said she’s including all the Grimes County fire departments in her plans for the recruitment grant her department received.

“We’re hoping to work in unison with the other departments to coordinate recruitment efforts so we all get the benefits,” she said. “We want to blast it everywhere between all the departments.”

Bomar, who joined the department in 2019, said she could use the grant funding to help battle misconceptions about serving in the department, including the myth that you must respond to fires.

“You don’t have to run into burning buildings to be a firefighter,” she said. “That’s not all that we do. You can do many things to help — public service, community events, school visits, teaching about fire safety.”

There is almost always something happening at the fire station, Bomar said, and all it takes is a willingness to help the community.

“If you want to be involved, show up and be involved,” she said. “We could use the help.”

Keiningham said they did not mean for the grant program to be a one-time solution but a step toward sustained recruitment efforts.

“We understand the need for rural fire departments to have a strong volunteer base,” he said. “We want to help empower residents to participate in the well-being of their communities.”

Applications for the Volunteer Recruitment Resources grant are available at http://TexasFD.com/RuralVFDAssistanceProgram.