Decline in volunteering hurts fire departments around the country

Recruitment is a problem for some departments, but a more common complaint is that it's hard to keep people once they've joined

By Jessica Fleming
The St. Paul Pioneer Press

EAGAN, Minn. — Volunteerism might be up during a down economy, but one group that heavily relies on donated time is suffering: fire departments.

Increased training requirements, more duties, squeezed family lives and less-flexible employers have all contributed to a decrease in the number of people willing to drop everything and pick up a hose, local fire chiefs say.

Recruitment is a problem for some departments, but a more common complaint is that it's hard to keep people once they've joined.

"We've lost an average of nine firefighters a year for the past few years," Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott said.

Other departments in the metro report similar problems.

Fire chiefs say some of the losses are due to retirements, but the economy is also taking its toll.

Firefighters leave because they have to work longer hours at their regular jobs as employers downsize; others have lost their jobs and are moving out of the cities where they serve. And some who find themselves unemployed are retiring from firefighting and collecting their firefighter pensions to survive, said Dave Ganfield, secretary of the Minnesota State Volunteer Firefighter Association.

The metro area fits into a national trend, said Kimberly Quiros, director of communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council.

"In the past 20 years, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined around 8 percent," Quiros said.

Volunteers make up 72 percent of the nation's firefighting forces, she said.

Quiros also blamed the decrease on increased commute times — a firefighter has to be able to show up at a fire scene within a few minutes — and the growing demand on people's time. More households have both parents working full-time, she notes. And what little free time parents have is spent with their children.

'It's a big issue'
Centennial Fire Chief Jerry Streich's department is feeling the squeeze. He's short 11 of the 60 firefighters he'd prefer to have.

"I've lost close to 20 percent of my staff in the past year," Streich said. "It's a big issue....Though people are committed to the fire department, they're more committed to their families and their jobs, and when they have to leave, they leave."

Most metro "volunteer" departments are actually paid on-call. Firefighters are paid either hourly during a call response or on a per-call basis. Hourly rates are usually around $13 an hour. Per-call rates range from a few dollars to $20.

"People who are in this, they don't do it for the money," Streich said.

More demand, less supply
The need to retain volunteer firefighters isn't just an inconvenience for local chiefs. It can also save cities money - lots of money.

Equipping and training a new recruit can cost about $7,000, said Eagan's Scott.

Firefighters go through an average of about 100 hours of initial training before they can fight their first fire. Then come about another 100 hours to learn how to be first responders, deal with hazardous materials calls and perform other varied duties.

"There's a lot more demand on a volunteer fire department now," Scott said. "My dad was a firefighter starting in 1971, and then you were a firefighter. Now you have rescue, hazmat, decontamination, first aid — all kinds of things."

After the initial training, even the most veteran firefighters at many stations train for two to four hours a week.

"It's a huge commitment to be a paid on-call firefighter," Inver Grove Heights Fire Chief Judy Thill said.

Unusual measures
Departments are coming up with novel approaches to rounding up and retaining new recruits.

A few recently have changed to a part-time model, where firefighters are paid hourly to man firehouses in shifts. Maplewood and Brooklyn Park say the switch has been a success, and other local departments might follow suit.

Maplewood Fire Chief Steve Lukin said some volunteers were resistant to the idea at first, but those who stayed with the department have been happy.

"They love the freedom," Lukin said. "They like the fact that they can control their hours and when they can be with their families. They don't live by the pager anymore like they used to."

Lukin said too few people work odd shifts in their regular jobs anymore, which was making covering daytime calls difficult. This way, firefighters are always at the ready for a call.

Firefighters, who sign up for 36 hours a month, are paid $12 to $16 an hour, depending on their experience and position. Lukin said he can now hire from outside the city, which also helps.

Eagan has six dorms that allow young recruits to live at its new fire station for free. The dorms, Scott said, assure someone is within range of the fire most of the time. Additionally, the city can recruit from other communities.

The program, which began in 2008 at Eagan's old Fire Station No. 6, has been a success, Scott said.

"I wish I could expand it to two stations," he said.

Some departments that are still paid on-call are resorting to cable television ads and Facebook pages to bring in new recruits. Others are using non-firefighting volunteers to handle less dangerous tasks in-house so firefighters can spend more time with their families.

Aiming to retain
Despite all the challenges, some local departments have been successful in both recruiting and retaining firefighters.

Apple Valley Fire Chief Nealon Thompson said his department hasn't had to hire a new firefighter since January 2009. He attributes that success to paying close attention to morale and clearly laying out expectations before he hires someone.

Area chiefs said giving a new recruit a clear picture of the amount of time and effort required is crucial to retention. Most hold informational meetings that interested residents must attend before they can even apply.

Lakeville's department also gets spouses involved.

"Your family plays a huge role in your being part of the department," Lakeville Fire Chief Mike Meyer said. "They're the ones that let you drop everything to respond to a call."

Even if it's getting harder to find committed firefighters, cities are unlikely to change their models anytime soon. The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates that volunteer firefighters save communities in the United States more than $128 billion a year.

Besides, the chiefs say their volunteers love what they do.

"They like helping their neighbors," Thompson said.

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