The Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department (BCVFD) welcomed a new, yet familiar, member into the role of chief, as Shawn Fosnight took over at the beginning of this year.
He said last week he has very big shoes to fill, following the previous chief, Nick Kelp, who served as chief for six years following his father, Dak Kelp.
Nick Kelp will continue serving as assistant chief of the department.
Fosnight joined the department around 11 years ago and was named chief by the department’s board of directors on Jan. 1, after serving as first lieutenant.
In the month since, Fosnight said he has been doing his best to follow in the footsteps of previous department leaders and that he aims to do the best of his ability moving forward.
When Fosnight first started volunteering, he said he wasn’t sure how long he would stick with it. Before long, he began to really enjoy it.
“It became part of who I am. I’m still there,” he said.
Fosnight said he now faces some nerves taking on the responsibility of being chief of the department.
“It’s being responsible for not only myself, but everybody else at the department. Whatever happens, it’s ultimately my responsibility,” Fosnight said.
“That’s a big thing to take care of … making sure that everybody is ready for whatever they might face, because that not only reflects back in them, but also back on me.”
However, Fosnight has been able to rely on the support and experience of Kelp to combat the nervousness in the new role.
“He’s called me multiple times every week, just asking or venting, it’s all part of it,” Kelp said last week.
Kelp is excited to see what Fosnight can do as chief.
“He brings a lot of optimism and enthusiasm and I look forward to helping however I can,” he said.
‘Doing it anyway’
Fosnight and Kelp have served together on the department for more than a decade, and in that time they have done countless hours of training and responded to innumerable emergencies all over the county.
With his experience, Fosnight said he wishes to mainly keep business going as usual as chief, but he wants to address some challenges the department has been facing for years.
The primary issue is with volunteer availability. In recent years, the volume of emergency calls has gone up, which Fosnight attributed to a growing population and an expansion of the county’s tourism business.
With limited time where volunteers are able to respond, he said the department simply can’t keep up.
Last year alone, BCVFD received 674 calls for emergency services. Out of those calls, 269 had no response from the department, due to a lack of manpower.
Fosnight said in 2014, there were almost 500 runs and the department only missed two.
“The number of runs missed is due to, No. 1, lack of volunteers. It’s very hard to run an all-volunteer department in today’s society,” Fosnight said.
“Just the generation we’re in — it’s not like it used to be. Years ago, people were all about helping their neighbor, helping their community, and now life is just so fast-paced, with so many things going on, that it’s really hard to get people who can dedicate time to respond.”
BCVFD is fully comprised of community members who volunteer extra time, on top of their 40-plus-hour work weeks, to prepare for and respond to emergencies not limited to structure or brush fires — they also respond to medical emergencies, car wrecks, lost hikers or animals caught in a fence.
The majority of the volunteers work a regular Monday-through-Friday work week outside of the county, Fosnight said.
When their pagers go off, whoever is available has to leave their job and get to the station. When they leave work to respond for emergencies, some volunteers have to worry about sacrificing their paychecks, or even their jobs.
Fosnight said out of commitment to serving their community, they do it anyway.
Time is a large factor in emergency response. Before volunteers can gear up and roll a truck towards the emergency, they have to travel from their place of work to town.
Depending on the severity of the call, a certain number of volunteers have to report to the station before a truck can roll out. So, if there is a house fire, and two volunteers are close by and get ready in a few minutes, they have to wait for two more to arrive to have a full team, for their own and the public’s safety.
Adding travel time from the department to the scene on top of that, at emergency speed with sirens blaring and lights blazing, with some of the furthest response areas being at least 20 to 25 minutes away, it can sometimes be up to almost an hour before help arrives, according to Fosnight.
If the station had volunteers available during the weekdays — or a paid staff at the station — Fosnight estimated a response time of around three to five minutes.
Fosnight said faster response times can make a very big difference — with the materials used in modern construction, he said fire doubles in size every 30 seconds.
“And if it takes us 15 minutes from the time you call, just to get to station and get a truck rolling, how many times has that fire doubled in size,” Fosnight said.
“That whole time, this house has been burning, or that this person has been in cardiac arrest … or of it’s a car wreck, and somebody is upside down — it’s astronomical, the amount of time that can be saved, and it makes a very big difference on a lot of calls.”
Fosnight said how people can help right now is by joining the department. He said a lot of training hours are involved, but to him, the reward is worth it.
“Yes, it’s dangerous and it is a real job, but it is still fun and exciting,” he said.
Fosnight called for anyone who is physically able and wishes to make a difference, especially with daytime availability through the week, to join to the department.
“If we don’t find those people, we are going to continue this trend it will possibly continue to get worse,” he said.
Another answer to the challenge would be to have a paid staff for the department, who could remain at the station to respond for emergencies.
Both Fosnight and Kelp said that has been something that has been brought up the whole time they’ve been on the department, but it keeps getting pushed back.
“What I would like to see is local government start really paying attention to the fire service and getting some revenue into those doors and getting some staff on station,” Kelp said.
“My ultimate goal and vision would be to have 24/7 coverage of a crew, and then supplement that with the volunteers.”
Kelp said the department will never be able to get away from volunteers. He added that he wouldn’t want to, as long as there were people willing and able to serve.
“They’re just kind of a manpower multiplier,” he said.
“Whenever we get larger incidents, multiple incidents or inclement weather with higher call volumes, they could handle more stuff. And, ultimately, it ensures a response for the public, which is really who we’re here for.”
Kelp said that volunteering at the department can take a toll on volunteers who work full-time and have other responsibilities in life. A paid duty crew would be able to alleviate that pressure.
“We’re just trying to provide service to the public. Over the past ten years, probably about ten people have really shouldered that load,” he said.
“Some of those people’s shoulders are broken, and some of them are breaking. I’ve had to see that firsthand — that’s something we don’t really talk about a whole lot.”
Running the department is also expensive, Fosnight said.
The department’s contract with the Nashville Town Council is $20,000 per year and the Washington Township contract is $45,000 per year.
When the department buys insurance for all its equipment, it utilizes close to the entire contract money from the Town of Nashville, Kelp said.
In addition, regular maintenance for the equipment and trucks adds up.
To secure funding and work towards a future that includes paid firefighting staff, both the previous chief and new chief are asking for support from the community.
“The biggest thing people can do is support it during elections. Let your elected officials know that that is what you want,” Fosnight said.
“It’s a vital piece of our community, to have that emergency service. And having it there 24/7 would be so beneficial.”
Want to volunteer?
For anyone interested in joining the Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department, visit the station at 231 E. Main St.
The crew is at the station the first three Mondays of the month at 6:30 p.m. for various training and maintenance exercises. Fosnight said visitors are welcome to look around and fill out an application.
More information can be found on their website at browncountyvfd.org or on their Facebook page at
EDITOR’S NOTE: The print version of this story has a headline that says, “11-year veteran of county VFD named as chief.” It should be noted that BCVFD is one of six volunteer county fire departments and is located in the Town of Nashville.