Seventy percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers, and national volunteer numbers have been going down steadily for years. Since 1984, the amount of people volunteering at fire departments nationally has fallen more than five percent, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. But it also says that emergency calls have tripled in the last 30 years. With fewer people staffing departments and fewer people committing to the hours of training required for volunteer duty, communities and citizens are becoming more vulnerable.
Volunteer departments across the country are in a crisis. We have an aging volunteer workforce, higher costs to communities as they hire full- and part-time staff, longer response times and more mutual aid calls, and an ongoing struggle to find funding for equipment that keeps increasing in price. “I have four or five guys that I would not be surprised if they were to walk in and tell me that they were too old for this,” says Lynn Fire Chief Jonathan Nicholson. “When you hear that four or five departments responded to a call you think that it must have been a pretty big fire, it may well be that only one or two guys per department were available,” he adds. “Most of our guys have other jobs, if we get a call in the daytime, they may not be able to leave their job to respond to the call.” adds Nicholson. “The state requires a certain amount of training, and if someone works second shift on their other job they cannot attend the training sessions,” he continues. “The protective equipment is also really expensive, just the pants and jacket cost between $2000 and $2500, the boots are about $300 and the gloves cost around $60, and you are only supposed to use them for 10 years. When we purchased our current trucks, one cost around $100,000. I was looking at similar trucks as replacements and they now cost around $400,000,” Nicholson states. “Our old equipment frequently needs replaced. Getting some new equipment on a regular basis helps to keep the guys interested in what is going on,” he adds.
It takes a very special person to volunteer their time, however, the number of these special people who volunteer as firefighters is declining and fire departments are doing all they can to retain current volunteer firefighters and gain new ones. Over the years, the number of volunteer firefighters within the United States has been declining. Not only is it becoming difficult to persuade people into joining fire departments, but it is also becoming more difficult to retain the volunteers that are currently in the service.
Nicholson knew he would join the fire department. No doubt.His father, Charles Nicholson, volunteered for Lynn’s department after a fire burned the family’s home. When Jonathan was born, the fire department was part of his life. “I’ve been in and out of that place since I was a little kid, and there was no reason to stop,” said Jonathan Nicholson. “There was no doubt in my mind I was going to be on the fire department.”
He grew up watching his father respond to calls day and night, on holidays, birthdays or any day, and now that’s what he does, too. “When my dad’s pager went off, he dropped everything and he left,” Nicholson said. “He went and helped people, and he got back when he got back. “Now, I drop what I’m doing because somebody obviously needs our help or they wouldn’t be calling.”
Charles Nicholson set the example when his son was young. “I learned at a young age it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what you want to do.”
“People my age and younger don’t want to volunteer,” said Nicholson, who is 38. “They don’t want to do something unless they’re going to be paid.” That creates a problem as longtime volunteers age. Nicholson said he needs younger firefighters to perform the grueling, physical work necessary to extinguish fires. The older volunteers dependably handle tasks outside the fire, but departments need younger volunteers to enter burning buildings and fight the fires.
Nationwide, volunteer fire departments save municipalities, and taxpayers, $139.8 billion per year in firefighting costs, according to a 2014 report from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). About 70 percent of America’s firefighters are volunteers, and 85 percent of the nation’s fire departments are all or mostly volunteer, according to NFPA. The smallest communities, those with fewer than 10,000 residents, are almost always served by volunteer departments, also, according to NFPA.
Across the country, small, rural fire departments are struggling to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. But even where the number of volunteer firefighters is holding steady, the number of calls is exploding. The nationwide tally of the calls departments respond to each year has tripled in the last 30 years, according to NFPA. These numbers influence a community’s ability to deal with emergencies, both large and small.
Indiana currently has 764 registered fire departments. Of those, 74.2% are considered volunteer, 14.3% are mostly volunteer, 2.6% are mostly career, and 8.9% are career. In Randolph County, Union City, White River Township, and Winchester have two or three paid firefighters on duty 24/7 and Saratoga has one paid firefighter on duty from 8:00AM until 5:00PM. The other departments in the county are volunteer. These departments are funded entirely by tax dollars and donations from fundraisers. “Here in Lynn, it costs about $130,000 per year to run the fire department,” states Nicholson. “We go on around 250 runs per year,”he adds. “While fewer calls is generally a good thing, it can hurt retention as volunteers may be wanting to do more than they are called upon for.”
Lack of volunteers can also have a negative effect for area home owners. “The state has certain requirements that we must meet to maintain our department’s rating,” Nicholson explains. “A home’s proximity to a fire station and that station’s rating are major factors in the insurance rates for home owner’s insurance.”
“Small towns like ours are losing our young adult populations,” Nicholson says. “They are moving to where there are more jobs. Most of those who return are older and have returned because of family members still in the area,” he adds.Volunteer fire departments once depended on local employers who offered full-time jobs with benefits to their volunteers and were willing to have employees leave work to fight fires. “Astral and Randolph Southern Schools are our biggest employers in Lynn. At Southern they can’t leave if there is a call during school hours, and many of the employees at Astral do not live in the area,” adds Nicholson. Today a typical job is as a per-hour worker with unpredictable shifts for a national or international company with no ties to community. The nation’s top employer is Walmart. Second on the list: McDonald’s, according to stock market information analyzed by 24/7 Wall St. and reported in USA Today.
According to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the nonprofit group Young Invincibles, reported in USA Today, millennials (born from 1982 to 2004) earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at the same age, and millennials have more student loan debt.
Because the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has declined 15 percent between its all-time high in 1984 and its all-time low in 2011 and, because over that same period, the number of calls has increased nearly 300 percent, existing firefighters are suffering from burnout. This leads many to quit.
Fighting fires as a volunteer requires the same training career firefighters receive. The training requires a significant time investment. It takes about 96 hours of classroom time to complete the required training.“Even as people have less time to volunteer, the training required to volunteer has become more intensive, taking more time,” adds Nicholson. “We recently had a training exercise with a mock auto accident. The exercise took about six hours, not counting the time spent getting the site set up.”
“We need to get the word out that we are here, we aren’t going anywhere, but we need all the help we can get, especially in the daytime,” says Nicholson. Volunteer firefighters may receive some compensation for their time and efforts, depending upon the department. “Our department offers our volunteers a little over minimum wage on a per call basis, however not all volunteers accept the money,” says Nicholson. If you have the desire to serve, volunteer firefighting may be for you. Departments often utilize community volunteers to assist with the non-emergency tasks of the department. This frees up the firefighters and EMS personnel to focus on training and response activities, while enabling community members to provide needed support to help their local department run. As a volunteer firefighter, you’re not only in service of your community, but also a more visible member of the community. This means the work that your fire company does in the community directly impacts the people you know and work with on a daily basis. This will give your work a stronger sense of purpose and have a positive impact on those in your life.
Saving lives and serving people is the basis of virtually anyone’s entry into the public safety or healthcare service profession. As a volunteer firefighter, you will get to do this on a daily basis. You’ll have a part-time contribution and a community of peers you can truly be proud of and fulfilled by. If you want to help your community in ways few can, contact your local department to find out how to join.