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Challenges for Volunteer Firefighters

volunteer firefighter challenges

Out of 27,192 fire departments that staff about 1,215,300 firefighting personnel, 32% were career firefighters, 56% were volunteer firefighters, and 12% were paid-per-call firefighters.

The statistics compiled by the NFDR highlight a challenge faced by fire departments across the United States. 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.

The number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has declined 15% between 1984 and 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.  

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.

In many ways, rural volunteer fire districts must work harder than “career” departments to secure adequate funding, to maintain a workable infrastructure, and to recruit and properly train enough crew members for their needs.

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