May 1, 2016
By Megan Favignano
The St. Joseph News-Press
CAMERON, Mo. — The first call Cameron Fire Chief Mike O’Donnell responded to was a house fire 30 years ago. He had just started with the fire department.
“Back when I got on the department, I probably waited three or four years on a waiting list before I could get on. And today, I don’t even have a list,” O’Donnell said. “To have a list these days, you don’t see that anymore.”
A National Fire Protection Association report published earlier this year shows the number of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people has been decreasing since 1986. The report, which gets its data through surveys of fire departments, in part looked at the number of career or full-time paid firefighters and the number of volunteers from 1986 through 2014.
There were 788,250 volunteers in 2014 compared to 808,200 in 1986, according to the report. The number of career firefighters has seen an increase during that same time frame, rising from 237,750 in 1986 to 346,150 in 2014.
Ken Willett, with the National Fire Protection Association, said states are working to address the declining numbers. Massachusetts, he said, developed a statewide volunteer firefighter recruitment program in an effort to combat the declining number of signups.
Voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax in April that in the next decade could fund full-time career firefighters in Cameron. O’Donnell said he wants to be prepared in case volunteers continue to decline.
Of the recruits O’Donnell has seen during his time with the department, he said most sign up for the community service component of the job. They want to give back to the community, he said, through fighting fires and the educational outreach the fire department does.
“That’s very important to me. I know my firefighters serve on the fire department because they want to provide a service to the community and volunteer to do that,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell attributes the national decline in volunteer firefighters to work and family life commitments changing and preventing some interested in joining fire departments from doing so.
O’Donnell, who has been fire chief since 2006, said when he started, more people used to work in town and many owned their own business. That gave them the flexibility to make their own hours and make themselves more available to the department.
Today, not as many people own businesses and many residents have to work outside of town.
“Their communities a lot of time don’t provide that employment that they need. So they’re working in the bigger cities where there is employment and it takes them out of the community,” O’Donnell said.
That presents a staffing challenge for small volunteer departments, he said, though the fire department appreciates business that allow their employees to leave work to fight fires.
Family life also has changed, as it’s more common for both parents in a household to work. Family life requires a lot of juggling, O’Donnell said. That presents another challenge for departments.
“It doesn’t work near as easy now … to be able to devote lots of time to the department,” O’Donnell said. “Between answering fire calls and training and going to events … individuals don’t maybe want or don’t have that kind of time to be able to spend to do that.”
While the National Fire Protection Association doesn’t have data on why volunteers are declining, Willett said the organization often hears reasons from fire departments similar to what O’Donnell has observed.
“What is being told to us … what is creating this lack of volunteers is number one, a change in society. People are less likely to volunteer because they have many commitments,” Willett said. “Second, is the amount of time it takes to train to become a volunteer firefighter can be burdensome.”
O’Donnell said once his department gets a new firefighter, they hardly ever leave. He described volunteer firefighters as very dedicated.
But volunteer firefighters also have a difficult challenge, O’Donnell said — especially if they’re at their full-time job when the department gets a call.
“They have to change their total train of thought from their employment to the fire service,” the chief said.
Being a firefighter requires them to be on call day and night, weekdays, weekends and holidays. If a firefighters gets a call in the middle of the night, they still have to be at their day job the next morning, O’Donnell said.
“You just never know when a call is going to come in,” he said.
While the number of volunteer firefighters is decreasing, volunteers continue to staff a majority of departments. The National Fire Protection Association’s report shows 85 percent of fire departments surveyed were staffed by mostly or all volunteer firefighters.
O’Donnell said he hopes departments including Cameron continue to be staffed by volunteers, adding that volunteer firefighters are cost effective for the communities they serve.
Copyright 2016 the St. Joseph News-Press
McClatchy-Tribune News Service