In more bucolic days, many a local firehouse was staffed with volunteers who protected their communities from the ravages of fire and occasional emergencies. Now it looks like those days could soon be history.
All across the nation, places like Pennsylvania, Texas, Idaho, and many others are seeing an alarming decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters—down from 300,000 in 1976 to just 70,000 today, according to a special U.S. Senate report.
The reasons for that are many but boil down to one thing, according to a recent New York Times analysis of the trend—volunteering has lost its verve.
What was once a call to battle blazes has largely turned into a slog of fundraising and emergency medical calls. Add to that obstacles such as training, equipment costs, and the demands of work and family, and the labor starts to outweigh the love.
“The manpower problem is [going to] be a problem that is not going to go away, it's just getting worse,” Chief Keith Newburn, of Bullard Fire Department in Texas, said in an interview with KYTX News. “A lot of it is because of the economy the way it is right now; a lot of people are not able. Volunteers are having to spend more time at a paying job.”
That problem isn’t unique to Texas. Nationwide, demographics have changed—the young people who typically volunteer are less tied to their communities, often have to move for work or educational reasons, or are burdened with rigid work schedules or family commitments.
“There are a lack of daytime volunteers available because of things like the always-changing economy and a lack of manufacturing jobs that employ third-shift workers,” Nyle Zikmund, a district director for the International Association of Fire Chiefs told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It's those factors and just pure demographics that are causing the shortage of volunteers.”
A shortage in volunteers means more and more departments have to turn to paid staff to make sure they can answer calls for service. And that, in addition to steeply rising training and equipment costs, creates another drain on volunteerism—the need to pass the hat to gather funds.
Fundraising to keep departments afloat can account for up to 60 percent of a volunteer’s time and are often cited as the biggest deterrent to staying active, according to the New York Times report. Not only is it not what recruits sign up for, it adds to an already overwhelming workload.
“I fund-raise, I train, and I go to fires,” the Times cites one fire chief as saying. “I can do two out of the three. You tell me which two out of the three you want me to do.”
Another problem, though, is that going to fires isn’t much of what volunteers get to do. In fact, fires accounted for only about five percent of calls in 2012, according to National Fire Protection Association numbers cited by the New York Times. The remainder includes mutual aid, hazardous materials, and medical calls. Medical calls have increased from about 6.4 million in 1986 to 21.7 million in 2012, according to the NFPA.
The collective effect of the changing volunteer culture is dampening, but there are efforts to change it. The Senate report suggests sweetening recruitment and training incentives with tax credits, tuition assistance, and service awards. Increasing grants for small departments to purchase better equipment and pay for training are also recommended.
Bills have been introduced at the federal level to encourage businesses to foster volunteer firefighter participation, give municipalities better taxation options, and arrange for student loan forgiveness for volunteers. Still, for those floundering in the face of a dearth of volunteers, action can’t come soon enough.
“If all these counties, and these cities, and these small rural areas start paying full time firefighters, they'll go broke,” Kevin Courtney, president of the Idaho Volunteer Fire and Emergency Services Association told KTVB News. “If there was a simple answer then we wouldn't be here right now and there's not and that's the frustrating part.”