Help Wanted!

Barry Furey discusses recruitment and retention problems in volunteer department staffing.


Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" was a popular peace maxim of the 1960s that made its way into songs and onto billboards and T-shirts. However, in the 21st century, an unpopular thought for many volunteer fire departments might more appropriately be, "Suppose they had a fire and nobody...


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Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" was a popular peace maxim of the 1960s that made its way into songs and onto billboards and T-shirts. However, in the 21st century, an unpopular thought for many volunteer fire departments might more appropriately be, "Suppose they had a fire and nobody came?" because in some communities this is a very real possibility every time the siren sounds or pagers chirp.

Since volunteer firefighters protect more than 95% of the smaller towns and villages in the United States, the problem is certainly almost universal. In 2005, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimated that there were approximately 823,350 individuals donating their time to protect the public. While this seems like a significant number, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), it was more than 60,000 less than the work force just two decades before.

According to an article in USA Today, also published in 2005, some regions are extremely hard hit by this reduction. By their estimates, New York State has lost 31% of its volunteers and Pennsylvania a whopping 76%. Still, firefighter shortages are far from isolated. In many cases, they are truly global issues. For example, the New Zealand Fire Authority has a page on its website dedicated solely to volunteer recruitment, and in the early 1990s the author witnessed appeals for new members posted outside rural fire brigade stations in Australia.

There have been numerous reasons given for the continuing decline in our ranks. Child-care and available-time issues relating to single-parent and two-job households, increasingly longer commute times in white-collar communities, employers that no longer let workers respond to calls and lack of affordable housing are all among the prime suspects. For the first time, more Americans live in cities than in rural areas, meaning that the formerly available workforce may not even be there anymore. Add to that an ever growing list of additional required training such as the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and blood-borne pathogens on top of what each state may mandate, and a seemingly dwindling number of fires in comparison to the number of automatic false alarms, and you have a hard time keeping those you do get.

In June 2007, the USFA and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) released the second edition of Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services: Challenges and Solutions. "Retention and recruitment remains a challenge for our volunteer fire and emergency medical services," NVFC Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg said.

While this may be stating the obvious, less obvious are the most effective ways to ensure adequate volunteer staffing. Let's take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of this pressing issue.

In Rockland County, NY, 20 miles northwest of New York City, all fire companies remain strictly volunteer. To a large extent, ranks are filled by off-duty members of area career departments and by firefighting families who have carried out the tradition for generations. Still, staffing is a concern. The median house value is rapidly approaching $500,000, and a study conducted by the Tax Foundation rated Rockland as number six in the nation for highest property tax burden. The county is still largely a bedroom community, and as is the case with many other similar towns and villages, people are moving even "farther out" in an effort to trade driving time for a lower cost of living.

Recognizing this, many communities are considering subsidizing housing for volunteers. In many cases, this applies to both fire department and ambulance corps members, since EMS has a mix of paid paramedics and volunteers. In 2004, the Town of Orangetown in Rockland County obtained homes on former state land to use for this purpose. Although not without cost, statements made at the time estimated that the annual expenditure is about 15% of what it would require to support career employees. Because the income levels for eligibility conform to federal guidelines for assistance, it does place a limitation on availability. However, college towns have long known the value of providing housing for volunteers, with several allocating bunk space in their quarters for student firefighters.

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