Ask almost any career firefighter about volunteers on their force—as we did the other day while walking through our small town—and you will hear the same thing: the difficulty they’ve had recruiting volunteer firefighters in recent years. It’s a problem sweeping departments across the United States and Canada, and it puts a serious dent in the ability of many towns to respond quickly to emergency situations.
While two-thirds of fire departments in the United States are run by volunteers, their numbers have fallen over 15 percent just over the last five years even though call volume has tripled since 1990, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. In Pennsylvania, the Fire and Emergency Services Institute reports that the number of volunteer firefighters declined from 300,000 in the 1970s to just 38,000 in 2018. North Carolina reported a 22 percent decline in just the last two years, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A look at the numbers in Canada shows just how important these volunteers are. Among the 150,000 firefighters in Canada between 2014 and 2016, only 17 percent were career firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association, while a whopping 83 percent were volunteers—especially in smaller communities below 50,000 people.
Why the decline? FireRescue1 polled the community to ask about the reasons for this decline. “Members’ time” was the most popular response at 40 percent, while other factors such as training requirements, lack of recruitment incentives, and poor leadership ranked lower down. Nearly all volunteers have another full-time job, so their time is stretched thin and they may want to spend that time with family and other pursuits. Another challenge is attracting women, minorities, and younger candidates to a field that’s long been dominated by white men.
Training and service requirements for volunteers vary among departments, but credentials for certification can be intense, including written and physical exams, drug screens, background checks, valid driver’s licenses, and residency requirements. In addition to hours of firefighting instruction, trainees may also be required to pass EMT training.
Fire Chief Jason Caughey of Cheyenne, Wyoming, recommends being more respectful of volunteers’ time, perhaps with virtual training components, shorter sessions, better lesson plans, and more convenient times. He recommends listening to volunteers’ needs and adjusting the organization to better fit the needs of today’s recruits.
In Massachusetts, the firefighting academy recently held its Call/Volunteer Firefighter Recruit Training program, delivering the standard training curriculum on nights and weekends to better accommodate students’ schedules. It incorporated online training components so recruits could complete more of their instruction outside of class and take tests online, giving them much better control over their schedules. Twenty-four graduates, including two women, represented sixteen departments, all in rural areas of the state.
Other recommended solutions to increase the pool of volunteer firefighters include more online marketing, greater incentives, better funding for basic equipment that recruits need to purchase, and stronger leadership.
These and other solutions can work. In Maryland, for example, one popular training program is offered in Spanish, French, and Portuguese,and it focuses on creating a welcoming environment for minorities and women. A mix of grants and state aid pay for training and equipment costs. And the chief of the Volunteer Fire Rescue Association is always recruiting—at supermarkets, libraries, religious institutions, and high schools—which has helped keep the number of volunteer firefighters steady over the past decade.