Local fire chiefs weigh in on national volunteer decline

BY ALEXANDRIA RANDOLPH/BURNET BULLETIN

 

“We need your help. Become a volunteer firefighter,” the roadside letter board read as I zoomed by a volunteer fire hall on a country road in Bandera County.

The plea isn't necessarily uncommon.

Across the country, volunteer fire departments are suffering a gradual decline of membership and volunteer efforts.

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, the number of volunteer firefighters in U.S. has declined by about 12 percent since 1984, dropping from 897,750 to 788,250 in the nation.

“Back when I joined in 1979 and even further back than that, the volunteer situation wasn't much of a problem,” said Randy Meeks, Burnet Volunteer Fire Chief. “At that time we had 52 members. When I joined we had 36 members… We had gotten down to about 14 at some point. Right now we're up to 21 which isn't bad compared to other departments.”

Nearby Bertram Volunteer Fire Department averages about 12 members, Meeks said, and Hoover Valley Volunteer Fire Department had so few volunteers for a time that they had to regularly call Burnet VFD for help.

Mike Phillips, Marble Falls Area Volunteer Fire Chief, said he has 18 volunteers in various stages of training, which he said is a reasonable number to cover the 123 square-miles in the department's service area.

“Some have gear, but some can't go on air (tanks),” he said, adding that it takes six months to a year for a firefighter to be fully trained to combat a structure fire.

Phillips said one possible reason for a decline in volunteer firefighters is the toll it takes on the body. Firefighters need to be capable of lifting heavy equipment, fighting fires in conditions exceeding 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit while wearing a minimum of 45 pounds of equipment.

“It's not simple things; it's hard work,” he said. “The heat takes a toll on people… Sometimes I equate it to training for a marathon.”

But that doesn't mean those with less physical endurance can't be of assistance, Phillips said.

“Usually people who can't go in (the fire) support those guys going in – getting ladders down, getting tools, getting water,” he said.

While the number of volunteers is on the decline, the average age of volunteers in ever increasing. The National Volunteer Fire Council reported that as of 2013 in communities between 5,000 and 10,000, 22.5 percent of firefighters are over 50. That number was 12.7 percent in 1987.

The organization sites increasing demands on people's time, longer commuting distances, prevalence of two-income households, and increasing training requirements as reasons why volunteer departments are having difficulty attracting younger members.

“Our average age is 45 and above,” Phillips said. “We love the younger guys, but it's harder for them to give up making money to volunteer.”

Phillips said his department occasionally takes three emergency calls a day, and those who work full time often feel unable to volunteer that kind of time.

Meeks said when it comes to volunteers, “you can't have too many. With volunteers, you have a lot of people out working, so the more you have to draw from, the more that will be able to show up during the day.”

However, some departments with over 35 or so volunteers can become unwieldy to manage.

“It's quite costly to put everyone in gear,” Meeks said, including handheld radios which are roughly $4,000 per person. “It's a catch-22. You want volunteers, but can you afford them?”

The National Volunteer Fire Council stated that it costs about $27,095 to train and equip a volunteer.

Meeks said the decline in volunteering may also be due to change in cultural attitudes and an increase in volunteer organizations in general.

“It's about getting the community to understand that we need help. We're out there to help you. It used to be that everyone ought to be able to pull your share,” he said.

Sometime willing volunteers choose other worthy organizations to donate their time, Meeks said, adding, “it's a special breed that wants to be a firefighter.”

“The $10,000 question is what gets people to volunteer at all,” Phillips said. “Do they value their free time more than volunteering?”

He suggested cost of living increases may also play a factor, and some just don't want to do the work, he said.

“A lot of people think the VFD is doing cook-offs and handles a little brush fire here and there,” he said. “We do way more than that.”

In fact, the efforts made and time donated by volunteers saves municipalities across the country roughly $139.8 billion per year, the National Volunteer Fire Council reported. Of the 29,980 fire departments in the country, 19,914 are all volunteer, and 5,580 are mostly volunteer.

Another factor the association sites in changing cultural attitudes are those of employers, who growing less likely to allow employees off work to respond to emergency calls, as well as the increasing abuse of emergency services by the general public, and greater expectations of the public of fire departments' response capabilities.

The association reports national call volume as nearly tripling from 1986, when the number calls was around 11,890,000, to 2013 when calls numbered 31,644,500. Small and mid-sized communities rely more heavy on volunteers, which in 2013 numbered roughly 105,250 for communities between 5,000 and 10,000, compared to the number of paid career firefighters, which number 22,100 in these communities.

Another reason for the decline may be attributed to the danger of the role. Out of the 96 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2014, 56 were volunteers, the National Volunteer Fire Council said.

“The leading cause of death for on-duty firefighters was stress/overexertion, resulting in 61 deaths,” the association reported on a fact sheet.

Phillips said that during heavy structure fires, “even the paid guys had issues… We can only get our core temperature up so much for so long.” 

Considering all these causes, volunteer firefighters are few and far between.
“If I get a new member, I get really excited,” Meeks said.

He said the average length of membership for BFD is 10-15 years.

“The more they learn, the more they want to stay,” Meeks said, except for those using volunteer departments as a stepping stone into a paid emergence service career.

Volunteer drives can be good for encouraging membership, but the best motivation is personal connection.

“Most of our membership drives were hit and miss,” Phillip said. “When we have our pancake breakfasts, we talk to people about the need… One of our latest cadets – we fought a fire at his house. Afterwards he came to us and said he wanted to help out.”

Despite all the challenges volunteers face, they all have a reason for doing the job. Phillips has been volunteering for just over 20 years.

“Why do I like to volunteer in the fire department? Because people call me for help on the worst days of their lives,” he said.

 

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