If fire threatens your home and family, there's a good chance the firefighters who respond are not paid. An estimated 5,500 volunteer firefighters serve our 15-county area, compared to less than a thousand who are paid. Volunteers, like paid firefighters, put their lives on the line for their neighbors.
One family of firefighters in Onslow County who lost one of their own in the line of duty continues to volunteer to help others. Brandon Whimple was just 19 years old when he died on his second structure fire call on March 24, 2007. Whimple was one of two firefighters killed when the driver of a Rhodestown Volunteer Fire Department truck lost control and flipped at Highways 111 and 258 near Jacksonville.
Brandon Whimple's father, Richard, also works at the same fire department, and his three youngest sons continue to volunteer even after Brandon's death.
The Whimple Family knows all too well the huge need for volunteer firefighters. Onslow County has nearly 600. Pitt County has the most in our area with 753. Hyde County has the most per household with a volunteer firefighter for every 40 people and only one paid firefighter. Duplin, Jones, Pamlico, Tyrrell and Washington counties have no paid firefighters.
"The county can not support a paid system," Onslow County Fire Marshal Brian Kelly says. "That would cost taxpayers hundreds and thousands of dollars and, in some cases, millions of dollars."
Volunteer fire departments do get money from the county for operational costs. Onslow County's budget for those departments was $4.6 million last year. If there were no volunteers though, Kelly says fire fighting across Onslow County would cost close to $50 million annually.
"Folks say that they're doing it on credit, and basically as they're banking credit that when they get older or they need it, they're doing it in hopes someone will do it for them," Kelly said.