By Philip C. Stittleburg
Recruiting new members and retaining the members we have are two of the biggest challenges the volunteer fire service has been facing in recent years. It is an ongoing battle that is made even harder as the nation continues to struggle with the effects of the economic crisis. With volunteers making up 71 percent of our fire service, it is clear that we need to keep the volunteer force strong so we can continue to protect our nation's communities.
I was alarmed when the National Fire Protection Association recently released its annual U.S. Fire Department Profile and I saw that the number of volunteer firefighters for 2009 had decreased to 812,150. This is down quite a bit from the 2008 estimate of 827,150 volunteers. And it certainly is a far cry from 25 years before, when in 1984 there were an estimated 897,750 volunteer firefighters.
Granted, the number of volunteers tends to ebb and flow over time, and there have been some years that the volunteer numbers have gone even lower than now. But look at the drastic increase in call volume over the past two decades and you quickly realize that the need for volunteer firefighters is greater than ever before. We should be growing in volunteer numbers every year, not fluctuating at numbers far less than 25 years ago.
According to the NFPA report, "Fire Loss in the United States During 2009," which was released this past August, fire departments responded to 26,534,500 calls in 2009. That is more than 1 million more calls than in 2008. The number of calls per year has doubled in the past two decades.
Feeling the strain
Volunteer and combination fire departments across the country are feeling the strain. I've talked to many department leaders who are struggling with getting new recruits into their station and keeping the volunteers they already have.
People are moving out of smaller communities in search of new job opportunities, or they are having to commute long distances to and from work, or they are taking on second or third jobs to pay the bills.
This leaves much less time or opportunity to volunteer. For many people, supporting their family and keeping their homes becomes their main concern, and volunteering for their local department must take a backseat.
These problems are not simply anecdotal. Firemen's Fund Insurance Company conducted a study last year of nearly 9,500 fire departments to see how the economy was affecting the nation's fire service. Among all volunteer departments that responded, 57 percent said they are losing volunteers who need to look for other jobs.
Another factor of concern is the lack of younger people entering the volunteer fire service. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has examined the numbers reported by the NFPA in their annual "U.S. Fire Department Profile" and found that there has been a persistent aging trend among firefighters protecting communities of 2,500 or less since the NFPA began publishing this data in 1987.
These communities are almost entirely protected by volunteers. Firefighters protecting these communities comprise close to half of the nation's volunteers and more than a third of the nation's firefighters.
The NVFC estimates that there are nearly 85,000 fewer firefighters under the age of 40 protecting our nation's smallest communities today compared with in 1987 – a drop of approximately 30 percent. Conversely, in 2009 there were more volunteers over the age of 50 serving communities of 2,500 or less than ever before (27.4 percent).
While there are many benefits to having seasoned personnel in a department, it is just as important to continually attract new, younger members. If we don't get younger members in the fire service, what will happen when these older firefighters retire?
We can't wait to find out. We need to get the next generation of the fire service ready now so that they still have time to learn from their seasoned counterparts and are able to take the lead when this older generation leaves the fire service.
The outlook isn't all grim. There are still more than 800,000 dedicated volunteers serving communities across the country, and the feelings of honor, pride, camaraderie, and community service that come with volunteering still thrive among the volunteer ranks.
The NVFC is working to provide volunteer and combination departments with resources, programs, and initiatives to help reverse the current trends and ensure the volunteer service thrives far into the future.
- The National Junior Firefighter Program helps fire and EMS departments engage youth who could potentially become active firefighters when they reach the required age.
- 1-800-FIRE-LINE is a national recruitment campaign that allows community members to call from anywhere in the country to learn about volunteer fire and emergency service opportunities in their area. The toll-free hotline netted more than 6,000 calls from prospective volunteers in 2009.
- Fire Corps connects community members to their local department to assist with non-emergency tasks, freeing first responders to focus on training and response activities while expanding the capacity of the department.
- The NVFC's Retention and Recruitment Guide highlights the primary challenges facing departments in terms of retention and recruitment, and outlines solutions to overcome each of the obstacles.
- The NVFC supports several federal bills that would make it easier for local communities to provide recruitment and retention benefits and actively works with members of Congress and their staff to pass legislation supporting the fire and emergency services. This includes the AFG, SAFER, and FP&S grant programs, which assist fire departments in funding the needs of departments, including retention and recruitment, training, and securing equipment.
- The Cost Savings Calculator allows departments to determine the specific cost savings their volunteer fire and emergency service department provides to the local community. This can help make the case for increased funding and community and governmental support for your department. Another tool that can help with this is Independent Sector's state-by-state breakdown of volunteer time value estimates, available at www.independentsector.org/volunteer_time.
Find more resources for retention and recruitment, including SAFER grant program ideas and profiles of successful retention and recruitment campaigns, at www.nvfc.org/rr.
As we look forward to 2011, we need to make retention and recruitment a high priority for the volunteer fire service. We need to find creative and innovative ways to attract and keep members. It is up to us to keep the fire service strong now and for the future.