Northwest Indiana volunteer fire departments experience manpower shortage

By Chas Reilly Times Correspondent

Local volunteer fire departments are putting out their own calls for assistance as more personnel is needed to help respond to burning buildings, vehicle crashes and other emergencies in their communities.

Northwest Indiana fire officials say it’s not a trend specific to this area. Departments from across the country are facing the same dilemma of volunteer numbers dwindling.

Merrillville Fire Chief Ed Yerga said nearly 80 percent of the fire departments in the state are completely volunteer.

According to the Indiana Volunteer Firefighter’s Association website, there are nearly 840 fire/rescue organizations in the state that are eligible to join the association. Of those, Lake County has the most and LaPorte County comes in second, according to the IVFA.

The major presence of volunteer fire departments makes the need for new recruits important.

Hebron Fire Chief Chad Franzman said his department has 24 volunteers, and he would like to have the crew up to 30.

Even with fewer volunteers than desired, the department still gets a truck out of the door in a timely fashion. The problem Hebron and other volunteer departments face is the uncertainty of how many volunteers will respond to calls.

If there aren’t enough personnel available, it requires the use of mutual aid to ensure there is sufficient manpower at a scene.

“We all work together because we couldn’t manage without them,” Franzman said of collaborating with other departments.

Response times could be longer

Compared to career fire departments, the response times of volunteer stations could be a few minutes longer, Franzman said.

Full-time firefighters can leave for calls more quickly because they are already at a fire station. Volunteers must assemble before heading to service calls.

The Merrillville Fire Department was once completely staffed by volunteers, but the Town Council and Ross Township Board in 2011 decided to form a fire protection territory, a separate taxing district, which resulted in additional funding for that fire department. That allowed it to hire 12 full-time firefighters, upgrade equipment and complete fire station remodeling.

Adding the full-time staff hasn’t reduced the need for volunteers, and Merrillville also is seeking new recruits to serve the community.

But Yerga said forming the fire protection territory has brought enhancements in fire service to the town, and he encourages other volunteer departments to explore it.

Franzman said he has contemplated the funding method, but it isn’t something Hebron is pursuing at this time. He said forming a fire territory will put an additional financial burden on taxpayers, and it might not receive a strong reception.

Bob Uryga, a retired volunteer firefighter with the Michiana Shores Fire Department in LaPorte County, said transitioning to a full-time department also increases the expenses to operate the entity.

Reasons for drop in manpower numerous

As area fire organizations seek more volunteers, it seems the reasons for the drop in manpower are numerous. Among those are the small wages available.

Franzman said the state minimum for volunteer pay is $200 annually for clothing and vehicle costs.

That’s what is provided to Hebron’s volunteers, but there are other local departments that also issue funding for each call to which volunteers respond.

Uryga, the District 3 chairman for the IVFA, said the association has long pursued state legislation that would provide a tax exemption to those serving as volunteer firefighters, and he believes offering that incentive would attract more recruits and retain current volunteers. District 3 includes LaPorte and Starke counties.

The training recruits must have before joining departments also could make it unappealing to become a volunteer because it’s the same as that for career firefighters. Courses available locally can take about six months to complete.

Lake Station Fire Chief Chuck Fazekas said that’s a major commitment for many people while working full-time jobs to support their families.

Fazekas said Lake Station almost reached its capacity of about 90 volunteer firefighters in the early 1990s. The force gradually has fallen since, and is now around 40.

Age is another factor, Fazekas said, that has his department low on volunteers.

“It’s a physically demanding job,” he said.

A number of volunteers in Lake Station have more than 30 years of service.

For many pursuing retirement, it’s not a situation in which they want to leave the department, but they’re “finding their bodies can’t do it anymore,” Fazekas said.

He said Lake Station hopes to draw in younger recruits by starting a cadet program in the city.

Through the initiative, the department would work with high school students to teach them about fire service and help them decide if they want to become firefighters.

Strong devotion to community needed

A strong devotion to the community and helping others is needed to become a volunteer firefighter, Uryga said. Although it can be challenging at times, the work can be an extremely rewarding experience.

“It makes you feel good when you help other people,” Uryga said.

He also believes volunteer firefighters don’t always receive the proper recognition for their efforts, and he thinks giving them “a pat on the back” goes a long way.

“It’s an awful nice thing to go on a fire call and to get a thank you,” Uryga said.