Volunteer fire department struggles reflect larger problem

The fire service doesn't come free and now is the time to remind newly elected or re-elected officials of that fact


Part of my job is to spend time each morning reading firefighting news from around the world. When you do this long enough, patterns emerge.

In any given week, you'll read about firefighters making great life and property saves, doing "above and beyond the call" acts of kindness, questioning their leaders’ abilities, being injured in the line of duty, engaging in prolonged contract battles and being involved in a vehicle crash to name a few.

One story I can count on seeing every morning is how some fire department is at a near-crisis state because it cannot attract enough volunteers to adequately protect its community.

This is nothing new; statistics showing decreasing numbers of volunteer firefighters has been part of our fire service conversation for years.

Interestingly, NFPA statistics that track the number of volunteer and paid on-call firefighters shows that after several years see-sawing numbers, the number of volunteers has climbed in each of the last three years they have data for — 2012 to 2014.

NFPA data shows that the number of volunteers peaked in 1984 with 897,750, hit bottom in 2011 with 756,040 and climbed back to 788,250 in 2014.

The causes attributed to the drop in volunteer firefighters have been many. I don’t buy the argument that the leading cause is a generation of young people with no sense of community and no desire to volunteer.

For my money, the root of the problem lies in our rapidly changing economy and the stresses it has put on people in the workforce. In many cases, the old rules of go to school, get a job, work hard and get a sense of security in exchange no longer apply. And where they still do apply, they may be short lived.

Incidentally, The National Volunteer Fire Council has a firefighter recruitment program called Make me a Firefighter that’s worth looking into.

As with reading about firefighting news, when you routinely write about it, patterns emerge. For me, one of those patterns has been beating the drum that the fire service is not free.

And that’s not dog-whistle speak for all fire departments should be full-time career departments. Volunteers and paid on-call firefighters are a vital component of the fire service fabric and serve their communities well.

Municipal, state and federal officials need to put aside the notion that the fire service can be had on the cheap; that it’s a budget saver. They need to commit real, well thought out money to providing the necessary level of fire, resuce and emergency medical services to their constituents.

The folks plowing snow and de-icing roads aren’t holding pancake breakfast fundraisers to buy a new plow or road salt. They are not shagging their butts out of bed at 2 a.m. for an emergency tone and heading off to their real job a few hours later.

It is going to take legitimate pay and benefits to attract and retain good firefighters. Paying a few hundred bucks a year or knocking a bit off property taxes is unlikely to cut it in the emerging economic world volunteer firefighters find themselves in.

And there needs to be a bona fide commitment to providing the equipment and training firefighters need to safely protect their communities. And that costs money.

A quick check of the number of elections held this past fall shows that there were 6,533 federal and state officials and large-city mayors voted into office. The uncounted smaller cities, counties and other budget-controlling boards could easily bump that number by 50 percent.

Fire service members and leaders need to reach out to those officials as they assume office and reiterate the value and cost of providing fire and emergency protection. This needs to be an ongoing conversation in every jurisdiction and at every level of government.

The pattern of struggling fire departments is deeply set and cannot be changed by one meeting or one election. It will take a concerted effort to recalibrate the perception of the tangible value fire departments deliver.

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