Volunteers comprise 70 percent of firefighters in America, yet with low recruitment and retention rates, some departments have had to get creative to stay afloat.
At Inver Grove Heights Fire Department in the city of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., Fire Chief Judy Thill has devised a 24-hour, year-round rotating schedule to make the workload more manageable for her on-call firefighters.
“We were receiving over 1,000 calls per year,” she said. “It got to be a lot on the volunteers. Between training requirements, weekly meetings, public education visits and their full-time jobs and family commitments, we’re asking a lot of them.”
Thill estimated a basic volunteer firefighter would spend around 10 hours per week working for the station. Add to that their additional firehouse duties, plus emergency calls, and it’s more like a part-time job of 20 to 25 hours per week.
To combat burnout amongst her team, Thill created a program called Duty Crew. Instead of each of her volunteers being paged every time a call comes in, the firefighters sign up for four-or-eight-hour shifts. They’re required to be in the firehouse, but can use that time to complete online or hands-on trainings, make public education visits or fulfill equipment checks while waiting for a call to come in. Once their shift is up, a new duty crew takes over. This is how the station operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“Knowing it takes an average of three years to become a basic firefighter and also knowing we lose an average of four to five firefighters per year, we decided to get out in front of the retention issue we’re seeing nationally,” Thill said. “If we waited until something drastic happened and we lost more firefighters per year, we would never be able to catch up. We try to make it as easy as possible on their schedules while still maintaining the high level of service the fire department supplies.”
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While this system works for Thill’s 65 volunteers, some organizations across the country can’t even bring enough volunteers in the door to dream of something like that.
In recent years, volunteer firefighting organizations have struggled to meet staffing needs, which is particularly concerning given the importance of volunteers in the firefighting system.
“One of the key struggles of many departments is to get enough volunteers,” said Kimberly Quiros, National Volunteer Fire Council chief of communications. “In the last decade or so, volunteer numbers have fallen but call volume has tripled. The challenge is making sure departments have enough staffing to do what is asked of them from their community.”
The NVFC cites increased time demands, more rigorous training requirements and the proliferation of two-income families whose members do not have time to volunteer as the major factors contributing to recruitment challenges.
“We went through an economic downfall, so people started finding jobs in neighboring cities,” Cash, who also serves on the NVFC’s executive committee, said. “After a commute to a large city, plus working eight-hour days, they don’t have time for me anymore. Plus, college-aged students who leave for school often don’t return to this community to live and work, so I lose out on them, too.”
In addition to a lack of availability, Cash said the shift of the fire department to take a wider range of emergency calls contributes to his roster issues.
“Back when we first started, businesses and industries in town would allow volunteer firefighters to leave their jobs to respond to a fire. Now that we respond to a variety of special incidents, employers can’t let their people off every time there’s a call. The volume is too high,” he said.
Cash compared the struggles of his department to a roller coaster — sometimes the roster is full, sometimes it’s not. He noted the loss of volunteers usually happens when people can’t maintain their hours for certifications.
“We’re holding our own right now,” he said. “But things are definitely worse than they were 10 years ago. We’re just not able to recruit and retain people. We used to have a waiting list of people wanting to serve our community as a volunteer firefighter and now we don’t.”
Cash is fortunate to be located in an area with four volunteer fire departments nearby to help. He’s never worried about a shortage of personnel response or, even worse, no response, but not all departments are so lucky.
The Eagan Fire Department, located in Eagan, Minn., came under heat last year when it took 18 minutes to respond to a call for a house fire. The National Fire Protection Association sets a six-minute standard for response time and recommends that goal be met 90 percent of the time.
Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott told TwinCities.com that the department’s response time was too slow and a consequence of manpower shortage.
“In volunteer fire departments, the one driving force is that you need volunteers,” he said.
After decades of thriving, many volunteer firefighting departments are having to revamp their model, hiring career firefighters to ensure there is always somebody on staff to respond to calls.
Cash employs eight full-time people while Thill employs five and runs her volunteer organization under a paid-on-call model. This means firefighters get paid each time they respond to an emergency.
“Most volunteer stations have career firefighters now,” Cash said. “It used to be out of the ordinary, but you’re seeing it more and more these days.”
A story of success
While most volunteer organizations face challenges in recruitment and retention, one Pennsylvania station had a whole different set of worries to combat: corruption within leadership.
The Wilkes-Barre Township Fire Department was on the brink of disbanding following the discovery of a fire chief who neglected to pay the department’s bills and instead embezzled money.
After being discovered in 2014, former Chief John Yuknavich was found to have stolen at least $45,000 from the company, leading to a six-month sentence in jail.
Facing mortgage foreclosure and stacks of unpaid bills, the group of volunteers was ready to fold the department until the municipality came to the rescue.
According to The Citizen’s Voice, Wilkes-Barre’s local newspaper, Wilkes-Barre Township absorbed the $77,000 that was remaining on the mortgage of the firehouse and invested $25,000 in new gear for firefighters. It also loaned the department $68,000 that was missing from the fireman’s relief association and paid $65,000 to help purchase a new ladder truck.
“These guys came a long way after we got the thief out of there,” Wilkes-Barre Township Mayor Carl Kuren said in an interview with The Citizen’s Voice.
Things are going so well now that a paid firefighter is stationed at headquarters 14 hours a day.
Having the municipality’s support and especially the unwavering commitment of the town’s mayor played a major role in the rebirth of the organization, according to an interview with Fire Chief Rich Hart in The Citizen’s Voice.
“If it wasn’t for (Mayor Kuren), we would have wrapped it up,” Hart said. “A lot of people were ready to throw the towel in.”
While the story of corruption within Wilkes-Barre is unique, what isn’t unique among departments is the necessity of passionate, committed volunteers in keeping departments operational. While volunteer organizations across the nation face staffing struggles, Quiros of the NVFC wants citizens to remember one thing:
“Volunteers protect about 80 percent of our nation’s communities. They’re a critical component of our fire safety organizations,” she said.
Cash encourages people to at least take a look at whether volunteering may fit into their lives, for both personal satisfaction and financial protection of our nation’s cities.
“At the national level, we encourage people to give their local volunteer small departments a look and see if it would fit with their lifestyles,” he said. “If we don’t, it forces taxpayers to pay career firefighters and rural communities like mine can’t afford that. Believe it or not, volunteers save the nation about $140 billion per year — money that people don’t have to pay career firefighters.”