Hardly a week goes by when a story doesn’t pop up on my Facebook news feed or show up on some news agency page talking about the shortages of volunteer firefighter, EMS or rescue personnel. All these news agencies report the one thing we all know, volunteer firefighters are a dying breed, but very few reporters print any solutions. It seems the burden of finding new recruits always seems to fall on the shoulders of the department. We’ve all heard the reasons people don’t volunteer: It takes to much training…. I can’t afford to take time from work…My employer won’t let me respond…. I live to far from the station. Many of these reasons are valid and understandable. While I don’t think that lowering the training requirements is the answer, working together we can find solutions to the other reasons. It is well known that 69% of all Firefighters nationwide are volunteer and save taxpayers $140 billion annually. Many if not most communities cannot afford to provide fulltime paid responders. While the emergency services providers need to ensure that they do their part to provide professional and well trained responders they are not the only ones responsible for recruiting. I feel that the local community, state and federal government can all do their part to help fill those empty lockers.
There are things that local municipalities can do help give incentive for volunteering. While most department do not have the budget to pay responders the local government can things to show their gratitude to those that give up their time. Developing a property tax credit is one way they can help…. most everyone you talk to complains about paying taxes. Local municipalities can provide a tax credit to property owners who volunteer, after all those volunteers are saving the rest of the local taxpayers’ money.
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The State government can do things to help provide incentives as well. They can reduce or eliminate vehicle registration fees for volunteers. In my state, they charge a higher registration fee for having firefighter, EMT or rescue plates. Lowering the registration fee will have a small impact on the State fund but will significantly help the volunteer. Providing tax credits to employers who allow their employees respond to emergencies during the work day is another way to help with department recruitment. It used to be a source of pride for companies to have their workers on the fire department but due to economic changes it is harder for those companies to be productive when being shorthanded. A tax credit could help soften that and encourage volunteering. Another potential idea to help volunteer departments is having the state set up retirement programs for long term volunteer responders. Wisconsin has a program where the state matches department contributions. Then after a predetermined number of years of service the volunteer becomes vested and upon reaching retirement age them money is played out.
I think the Federal government can step up and help the volunteer responder as well. A program like the GI bill could help provide incentive to volunteer serving the community. If a person dedicates a minimum number of years to the community the federal government could help pay for college via grants, interest free loans, etc. It would encourage young people to serve their local community and give them real life perspective. The federal government could also provide tax credits to people who buy homes in areas that have been identified as needing responders. I know there are already urban revitalization programs in existence but very few apply to areas protected by volunteers. Tax credits could also go to employers who encourage and allow employees respond to emergencies. The federal government already funds departments thru grants and other staffing programs but once again many volunteer organizations don’t qualify for staffing grants. Instead of funding the department to hire people we could encourage companies to have their employees volunteer.
I feel our society would be better off with a renewed sense of community and patriotism. I think you become more compassionate when you help someone from a different walk of life. Bringing more people into the fire services family will make for stronger, more understanding, healthier communities. Perhaps if we encourage young people to serve the community some of our countries other issues will work themselves out. I think that by the government investing in these ways it would be a win/win…. volunteer emergency services will be able to secure people and society would be better.