Common Challenges Volunteer Firefighters and their Leaders Face

volunteer firefighters

The National Fire Department Registry (NFDR) published a report in April 2017 detailing the number and type of personnel who man the firehouses throughout the US.  The NFDR published that there are 27,192 fire departments that staff about 1,215,300 firefighting personnel.  One striking and surprising result of the NFDR study is that of the active firefighting personnel, 32 percent were career firefighters, 56 percent were volunteer firefighters, and 12 percent were paid-per-call firefighters.

The statistics compiled by the NFDR highlight a challenge faced by fire departments and the cities, towns, and municipalities they are sworn to protect.  The fact is that when you call for help or have an emergency, five out of ten firefighters who show up to render aid are volunteering. Volunteer fire departments cover vast sections of the country that are not serviced by paid fire services.  Traditionally these departments existed primarily to respond mainly to structure and wildland fires.  However, as funding for EMS services is reduced, volunteers are finding themselves responding to accidents, technical rescue, and other life-threatening emergencies.  The new administration’s unprecedented cuts have also befallen onto volunteer fire station budgets.  The budget cuts and reduced funding are raising concerns about the state of department readiness and the ability to respond with near obsolete equipment. In order for the volunteer agencies to succeed they must keep up with the needs, growth, and changes of their community and society.  Simply put, you simply cannot use 1960 technologies to service 2018 problems.

Obsolete equipment and training issues are not the biggest challenges faced by the volunteer fire department brigade.  Across the country, small, rural fire departments are struggling to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. The number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has declined 15 percent between its all-time high in 1984 and its all-time low in 2011.  To further exacerbate the situation, over that same period, the number of calls has increased nearly 300 percent nationwide.  The decline in volunteerism in the fire service has been attributed to a number of different causes.  

One explanation for the decline in volunteer firefighters is associated with a general decline of people in the community willing to serve in a volunteering capacity.  According to reports by Federal Emergency Management Agency changes in work schedules and increased demands on volunteers’ time is to blame for the decline.   Volunteers require the exact same training as career firefighters, all of it done on their own time.  Philip Stittleburg, a retired criminal prosecutor who is the volunteer fire chief in La Farge, Wisconsin described the sentiment resonating with some members of the volunteer community. “We are professionals. We are unpaid professionals. The level of training is typically very similar. The level of dedication is very similar. There is not a paycheck that motivates us to do the job, you put in the time if you have it”.  Moreover, the volunteers who do commit the time are sometimes met with resistance from their employers to leave throughout the day when fire calls occur.  Prior to the most recent decrease in numbers, volunteer fire departments once depended on local employers who offered full-time jobs with benefits to volunteers who served their community and thus were willing to have employees leave work to fight fires.  The occupational landscape for volunteers has changed their ability to serve.  The average rural volunteer commutes over 10-15 miles to a densely populated location that works unpredictable shifts for a national or international company with no ties to community.  This impact to volunteer staffing has a detrimental impact on the ability to protect the people within their municipalities.  If you cannot assert who is on duty and what their skill levels are then it renders your department unable to provide dependable and predictable service.

The new challenges in staffing have brought about new ideas to help fill the employment gap.  Rural Texas fire departments have experimented with paying a small stipend to firefighters to make up for the staffing gap during the day.  Departments that cannot pay volunteers have offered ongoing training at nearby Texas A&M.  Weeklong courses taught by professionals in the Forest Service and the nearby Azle Fire Department provide volunteers with critical training not offered to many of their peers throughout the nation as a thank you in exchange for their service.  Some departments have had success in utilizing programs developed by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), namely the Fire Corps.  The nationwide program began in 2004 to engage community volunteers to help their fire departments in non-emergency roles, including fundraising, cleaning equipment and trucks, bookkeeping and other paperwork, and education programs.

Almost 300 years after Benjamin Franklin established the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia the tradition of serving is in danger of being extinguished.  As the number of emergencies continue to increase, it’s important that volunteer firefighters have the resources they need to benefit the communities they serve.  This can only be accomplished by combined efforts from members of the education, technology, and government communities to reach help reach a solution.

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