Firehouses Raise Alarm Over Lack of Young Recruits

The China Village Volunteer Fire Department has 21 volunteers, but only six can fight fires. Most of the rest, said Fire Chief Tim Theriault, are simply too old.

“They come and they help and hang around, but I can’t send them into a fire,” Mr. Theriault said. “It’s a young man’s sport.”

The firehouse in China, Maine, a wooded town northeast of Augusta, is one of many departments whose staffing needs are caught in a demographic trap, with not enough young volunteers climbing onto firetrucks to replace the elders.

It goes beyond China. The Maine State Federation of Firefighters is running a television ad calling for volunteers. Some volunteer departments in Maine are offering free lodging to college students who agree to help out. And communities like China are considering paying stipends to volunteer firefighters as a way to make the job more appealing.

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“We really have to market to the millennials,” said Kevin Quinn, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council, a Maryland-based nonprofit trade association. “Otherwise, we don’t have that next generation in line to replace those of us who will be gone in 10 years.”

Fire officials across the country also are sounding the siren, and trying to make the job more appealing. A law passed in Pennsylvania in November gives volunteer firefighters a break on property taxes. Wisconsin lawmakers, after launching a committee to study the issue last year, introduced several bills this month to address a volunteer firefighter shortage there.

“This is a nation-wide problem that is reaching crisis proportions,”  Chief Michael Gorski, head of the volunteer fire department in Hampden, Mass., wrote in a Facebook post in early February, describing staffing woes.

There were 808,000 volunteer firefighters in the U.S. in 2015, down nearly 10% from 1984, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, even as the U.S. population grew by more than 35%. And across the country, the local ranks of volunteer firefighters are graying, with the percentage who are 50 and older rising across all communities—jumping to 31%, the highest percentage, in communities with fewer than 2,500 people in 2014 from 16% in 1987.

According to the council, call volume has tripled in the past 30 years, in large part to a rise in emergency medical calls.

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Maine is feeling pronounced pressure: Residents there have the nation’s highest median age, 44.5 years old. It is also the most rural state in the U.S., based on the percentage of residents who live in a rural area, so it feels acutely any shifts in the volunteer forces that are the backbone of many country towns across the U.S.

Firefighters in the state who are volunteers or “on call”—meaning they aren’t on a salary but get some sort of small payment for responding—number below 5,000 compared with 8,800 around 1998, said Ken Desmond, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters.

Fire chiefs offer a range of possible theories. Volunteering, in general, is down, and more training requirements and the rise in service calls make volunteer firefighting a bigger time commitment than once was the case. And people in two-career families are busy enough shuttling their children to activities or just trying to make ends meet.

That leaves veteran volunteer firefighters like Bob Batteese, who is 74 years old, to answer the calls. He joined the volunteer fire service 45 years ago, and signed onto China Village’s department in 1984.

It isn’t a glamorous gig. Chicken barbecues fund the new equipment. Firefighters hustle out to battle structure and car fires. But they have to bring the same intensity to calls that turn out to be nothing more than a man roasting marshmallows or a burned-out power strip.

Retired from Maine’s state agriculture department, Mr. Batteese said firefighting is his primary hobby, and deeply satisfying—even as his role has changed and he sticks to tasks like directing traffic or operating the water pump at the scene.

“I’m way beyond going into burning buildings, that’s for sure,” he said

The aging department is going to be an issue at the annual China town meeting in March.

While firefighters are currently unpaid, residents will vote on a proposal brought forth by the town’s board of selectmen to dip into town coffers to compensate the volunteers with a stipend.

Supporters of the idea say the incentive would draw more willing participants to the fire department, said Daniel L’Heureux, China’s town administrator. Others, including even some volunteers, worry it will change the nature of an honored local tradition.

“Not everybody is in favor,” Mr. L’Heureux said. “Some people are saying, ‘We do this because we want to do this.’”

 

Article By JENNIFER LEVITZ, https://www.wsj.com/