The volunteer fire service is at a cross road and volunteer chiefs will need to reevaluate how they operate
By Rick Markley
When the National Fire Protection Association released its figures on the number of firefighters in the United States in October 2011, an alarm went off in the volunteer sector. The number of volunteer firefighters was at its lowest since 1991.
This is cause for concern, but just how much concern? Then-National Volunteer Fire Council Chairman Phil Stittleburg was quick to channel author Mark Twain when he said that reports of the volunteer fire service’s death are greatly exaggerated. Stittleburg is also long-time chief of the LaFarge (Wis) Volunteer Fire Department. He does, however, caution that if this trend continues, the volunteer service will reach a crisis state.
To be clear, the NFPA data covers 1986 to 2010. Although the 2010 numbers are the lowest in 19 years, 1989, 1990 and 1991 all showed less volunteer firefighters than did 2010. Table 1 (below) shows the number of career and volunteer firefighters for the last 10 years (full NFPA report). Another figure that jumps out of the report is the number of firefighters per 1,000 residents they protect. For both career and volunteer, 2010 marks the lowest rate since NFPA began collecting data in 1986.
To put these results in perspective, it is important to understand how NFPA gathers this data. For communities with populations less than 50,000, the survey is sent to a sample that is stratified by the size of the community; projections are then based on weighted samples. About one-third of the states are surveyed each year on a three-year rolling schedule. NFPA says that about 19% of the departments surveyed respond.
Although the NFPA study does not breakdown its results by region, in some area, such as Texas, the number of volunteers was steadily rising. This, says Chris Barron, executive director of the Texas State Fireman’s and Fire Marshal’s Association, is likely due in part to formal recruiting efforts and the unprecedented wildland fire season Texas experienced. Barron is also chief of the Manchaca Fire Department, a combination department near Austin. Barron’s association used federal grant money to kick off a statewide recruitment and retention program. Part of that program calls for departments to submit exact membership numbers every six months. Since the first grant in 2008, Texas has seen a steady increase in its volunteers.
Stittleburg admits that the NFPA numbers may not have the exactness of a full-blown census. However, he was confident that they accurately reflect trends in volunteer membership. And for volunteer or combination chiefs who are seeing their numbers slip, it doesn’t matter much if the NFPA survey is on a three-year rolling cycle or not. They need to know why those numbers are dropping and what to do to right the ship.
“This isn’t demonstrable in any statistical evidence, but I think we are seeing the aging of volunteer fire service,” Stittleburg says. “People are retiring and we are failing to bring in younger people to fill those spots. The average age of volunteer firefighters is increasing; that much we know.”
Recruiting efforts, he says, needs to be aimed at those in their teens and 20s. “In the past we’ve recruited by word of mouth. That doesn’t seem to be getting it done anymore,” he says. “We’ve got to be getting into the schools and saying this is something that you will really enjoy and it is a good thing for your community.”
The coordinated recruiting effort in Texas, part of which involved targeted public service announcements, seems to support this notion.
In South Carolina, Shane Ray saw a drop in volunteers. At the time, Ray was the superintendent of the South Carolina Fire Academy where he is responsible for all the state’s fire training. Ray is also the international representative on the International Association of Fire Chief’s Volunteer & Combination Officers Section, and the former chief of the Pleasant View (Tenn.) Volunteer Fire Department. Since 2015 he has served as president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association. South Carolina is running pilot programs for firefighting and EMS training for high school students at six vocational training facilities across the state. It is important, he says, to offer young recruits vocational training, because most need to see some personal benefit. Older recruits, in their 30s, 40s and even 50s, typically come to volunteer fire departments out of a deep-seated duty to serve their community. This, Ray says, is not something he often sees in the young recruits.
Another oft-cited reason for the decline in volunteer ranks is the overall economy. Regardless of when the recession began and ended, this prolonged economic downturn has forced most to work longer hours to make ends meet.
“I had a chief this morning tell me that some of his volunteers are working 70 to 90 hours a week,” Ray says. “They have no available time to serve at all.”
Exacerbating this situation is the financial woes felt by volunteer fire departments’ local and state governments. In what seems like a cruel joke, Barron says that while Texas is able to attract and retain volunteer firefighters, there is no money to outfit them with proper protective equipment. Worse yet, Barron does not see an end to this problem, despite constant efforts to convince Texas lawmakers to provide adequate funding. He says the problem stems from both too little money and too low of a priority placed on volunteers.
“We’ve heard that 86% of those volunteer firefighters pay money out of their personal account to keep the fire department running,” Barron says. “We’ve heard cases where they are putting fuel in the trucks (with their own money) because the fire department doesn’t have any money or they are spending it on repairs or PPE.
“It is like the perfect storm for a fire department. You have lower levels of funding, increased call volume and unprecedented wildfire season. Last year was terrible (for wild fires) and the predictions are that this year is going to be about the same in Texas.”
This Texas-sized problem will not be solved with a few pancake breakfasts and carwashes. And so they turned to the private sector. They went so far as to hire a public relations firm to generate donations. And it is working. They’ve pulled in sizable donations, of $100,000, from several associations, foundations and companies. To date, requests for help from Texas volunteer departments comes to about $1 million; through donations they have been able to meet about half of that demand, Barron says. “It has helped, but it hasn’t been able to get everybody in (protective) gear yet.”
An interesting aside to the economics issue, Stittleburg says, comes from a study NVFC conducted several years ago. “One of the things we learned is that volunteer departments need economic stability,” he says. And it is not just the downturns that hurt volunteer departments; boom times can be just as bad. “You have a steadily increasing demand for services without a corresponding increase in volunteers. The sense of community that causes people to join hasn’t developed yet. Economic stability is really where we do our best work.”
Of course the real gorilla in the room is the amount of training required to be a volunteer firefighter. You’ll not likely find many to champion the cause for less-trained firefighters and there is merit to the argument that rigorous training weeds out those who lack commitment. Yet NFPA 1001 Firefighter I and II training requirements can be onerous to volunteers, especially during economic hard times.
“The class below Firefighter I, which we call Fundamentals of Firefighting, is around 88 hours,” Ray says. “We have (a Firefighter I class) that I just came from that runs five months for three nights a week.”
In Texas, there are no state mandates regarding volunteer firefighter training, which may partly explain why it is able to attract recruits. However, each department can set its own training requirements. At Barron’s department in Manchaca, new recruits must go through a nine-month-long academy before fully participating in fire ground operations.
This has some in the fire service questioning the one-size-fits-all training requirements of NFPA 1001 and looking for pragmatic alternatives.
“There was a report in South Carolina on the delivery of statewide training in 1976,” Ray says. “One of the recommendations was that there would be standards and delivery for the training of volunteer and another objective for career firefighters. It is funny that they recognized back then the need for two separate delivery systems.”
Ray says he is looking to create training standards by the end of this year to meet individual fire department specific needs. For example, he says that many of the rural fire departments in South Carolina and Tennessee only make exterior fire attacks. Likewise, some volunteers may only drive a water-supply truck. Montana, for example, offers an exterior firefighter certification, he says.
“Not everybody is going in the burning building, so shouldn’t there be certification levels that are commensurate with their duties?” Ray asks. “We (need to) look at the community and what our risks are, then take (into account) our fire department and what their capabilities are, and then deliver the training.”
Stittleburg agrees; he retells how many years ago he had to deliver training on fire sprinklers when none of the buildings in his town had sprinkler systems. “What we are training for has to be appropriate,” he says. “In the basic firefighter training, we don’t deal with water movement; that’s a pretty basic thing for us.”
Like Ray, Stittleburg also thinks that volunteer departments need to be honest about what services they can provide and adjust their training and equipment to that level. Some departments cannot do hazmat and need to let government officials know that they will have to go elsewhere for that service.
“We can’t be in a situation where we are representing that we can deliver the services that we don’t have the skills to deliver,” Stittleburg says. “If we can’t do swift-water rescue, then we probably better not have an airboat that we don’t have adequate training to operate.”
Stittleburg would like to see firefighter training presented in ala cart modules that allows the chief to select those modules best suited for his or her department. For his department, training on aerial units or high-rise buildings is irrelevant because his and his neighboring communities have neither. However, water movement, barn fires and silo fires are very relevant, where as they might not be to a more suburban community. “It (would) cut down on the time they spend training and you are going to get a lot better response to the training,” he says.
Additionally, he says, volunteer fire departments will need to tap into those in the community, who may not want to be firefighters, but have skills like accounting, fundraising, and mechanics that can assist the department. This, Stittleburg says, will bring in more community participation and open the door for older people and those with disabilities.
Stittleburg, Barron and Ray agree that a declining number of volunteer firefighters will significantly raise the risk of greater loss of property and life, less fire prevention education, less code enforcement, and perhaps worse ISO ratings. One way to address this issue is to use the talents of those who want to help the fire department without becoming interior firefighters.
“As a former fire prevention director for the state, it is going to suffer,” Barron says. “It is pretty much the first thing to go. We are still trying to tread water to make sure our calls are answered and our trucks are running and we’ve got protective clothing on.”
In addition to relying on nontraditional firefighters, volunteer fire departments may find themselves relying more heavily on their neighboring departments through mutual and automatic aid agreements.
“I’m new to Twitter and somebody tweeted yesterday that mutual aid is a town shirking its responsibilities,” Ray says. “No it’s not; it is smart utilization of resources and playing nice together.” And he takes that thinking even further in calling on chiefs to examine the apparatus they and their neighbors have. “The county I was just in has 37 fire departments and all of them have an (aerial) truck. Is that good utilization of the citizen’s money? One of the departments has an E-One Bronto. Do you know the training needed to properly function that bad boy? Why couldn’t one place have that unit and focus on its use?”
Whether or not the NFPA numbers hold true, the paradigm for volunteer firefighting is shifting before our eyes. In the end, there likely is no magic-bullet solution that can set the volunteer service right. Volunteer chiefs will need analyze their individual situations and try on a series of fixes until they find the ones that fit.
Number of Firefighters for the Past 10 Years
Year Total Career Volunteer Depts.
2000 1,064,150 286,800 777,350 30,339
2001 1,078,300 293,600 784,700 30,020
2002 1,108,250 291,650 816,600 30,310
2003 1,096,900 296,850 800,050 30,542
2004 1,100,750 305,150 795,600 30,400
2005 1,136,650 313,300 823,350 30,300
2006 1,140,900 316,950 823,950 30,635
2007 1,148,500 323,350 825,450 30,185
2008 1,148,850 321,700 827,150 30,170
2009 1,148,100 335,950 812,150 30,165
2010 1,103,300 335,150 768,150 30,125
Source: National Fire Protection Association: U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2010. NFPA has kept career, volunteer and department statistics since 1983; 2010 is the most current data available.
Number of Fire Departments
2009 Total Percentage of Total
All Career: 2,457 8.1%
Mostly Career: 1,752 5.8%
Mostly Volunteer: 5,099 16.9%
All Volunteer: 20,857 69.1%
2010 Total Percentage of Total
All Career: 2,495 8.3%
Mostly Career: 1,860 6.2%
Mostly Volunteer: 5,290 17.5%
All Volunteer: 20,480 68%
Source: National Fire Protection Association
This article was originally published by Penton Media.