Work together: Overcoming volunteer challenges in 2012

We must examine which practices are working and which ones aren't

By Philip C. Stittleburg
NVFC Chairman

As another year comes to a close, I am glad to see there have been many successes for the volunteer fire and emergency services in 2011.

At the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), we have released many new training webinars, entered into promising partnerships, strengthened international relationships, and continued expanding critical programs such as Fire Corps, the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program, and the National Junior Firefighter Program.

However, there have also been many disappointing hits to the volunteer fire and emergency services. For the second straight year, the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased.

The National Fire Protection Association's U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2010 shows there are 44,000 fewer volunteers in 2010 compared to 2009.

Perhaps even more troubling is that the aging trend we have seen in the volunteer fire service for the past seven years continues. In 2010, 51.2 percent of firefighters in communities under 2,500 were over 40.

The percentage of firefighters over 50 years old serving those communities has risen every year since 2000 and now stands at 28.7 percent.

Reinvigorate initiatives
While we won't know the 2011 numbers until next fall, we must take this news seriously and reinvigorate initiatives to increase recruitment and retention.

We must examine which practices are working and which ones aren't, identify areas where changes need to be made, and look outside the box for new approaches.

We need to focus on the root causes of these trends and work together to make the changes needed in the fire service to meet the new demands and continue to thrive.

Another challenge that faced the fire and emergency services in 2011 was in the area of legislation. The year actually started with some success.

Thanks in part to efforts from national fire service organizations including the NVFC, Congress provided $405 million each for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs in the FY 2011 appropriations. This represented a $15 million increase for AFG from the previous year.

AFG and SAFER are the most significant sources of federal assistance available to the fire and emergency services and play a critical role in ensuring that all departments meet a baseline level of readiness.

AFG awards grants to fire and EMS departments to fund basic necessities including training, equipment, vehicles, health and safety programs, and fire prevention and education programs. SAFER provides grants for the hiring of personnel and for volunteer recruitment and retention efforts.

Despite this early success, very little legislative progress benefiting the fire and emergency services has been made since.

Gridlock on Capitol Hill
One of the main obstacles to legislative advancements has been gridlock on Capitol Hill. While the NVFC has been working tirelessly to promote and advance legislation that will help keep the volunteer emergency services strong, the inability of Republicans and Democrats in Congress to put aside partisan differences and work together has made it difficult to get anything accomplished.

Unfortunately, this situation is likely to get even worse as we head into an election year.

We must unite as the nation's first responder community to communicate with Congress regarding legislation affecting the fire and emergency services.

Ask your Representative and Senators to support legislation that will keep the emergency services strong. The NVFC provides an easy-to-use tool that enables you to take action.

Through our Capwiz alert service, you will receive a Legislative Action Alert when your involvement can make a critical difference. The alert will link you to a letter that you can send directly to your legislators from the online system.

Sign up for the NVFC's Legislative Action Alerts and help make a difference at Learn more about all of the NVFC's legislative priorities at

Thing to remember
So what can we surmise from all of this? The critical thing to remember is that volunteers continue to be the backbone of our nation's fire and emergency services.

What started 275 years ago with the founding of the first volunteer fire station in Philadelphia continues to be a strong tradition today. Volunteers make up 70 percent of the fire service, and communities across the U.S. depend on us to keep them safe.

Together we can work to increase our numbers, effect legislative change, and enhance the ability of the volunteer fire service to protect our communities. Let's make 2012 a positive and successful year for the fire and emergency services.

Find tools and resources for your department and learn more about what the NVFC is doing to help the volunteer fire service thrive at

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