Who’ll answer the fire call?
Is the volunteer firefighter an endangered species?
Based on the volunteer shortage here in Rowan County and across the country, that appears to be the case for these community guardians who’ve long been part of our history and culture — going all the way back to the horse-drawn pumpers of colonial days.
Fire officials cite several reasons for the decline: The loss of farm-based jobs and big local employers like textile mills that could accommodate emergency absences from work. More rigorous training and certification requirements that demand greater commitments on the part of volunteers. Distant commutes that take workers out of their home counties. An economic downturn that has increased two-income households and forced many people to hold down more than one job. Meanwhile, higher population densities result in more calls for fires, wrecks and other crises.
Whatever the factors driving the shortage, it’s widespread, and it has been a serious concern for several years. A 2005 USA Today story noted that the number of volunteer firefighters had dropped 10 percent in the previous two decades. With no indication that decline is going to reverse itself, departments here and elsewhere are looking for ways to attract new volunteers, including publicity campaigns, modest stipends or participation in pensions funds. For example:
• In New York state, the Firemen’s Association recently obtained a $4 million federal grant to boost recruitment efforts. The grant will help fund firefighter incentives, including a tuition reimbursement program for volunteer firefighters taking college courses.
• In 2008, Pennsylvania enacted a law that offers volunteer emergency responders a $100 income tax credit.
• Colorado passed a law that bars large employers from firing employees who leave work to respond to emergencies. Nebraska lawmakers passed a law that bars employers from punishing employees who arrive to work late because they have responded to emergencies.
If such measures fail to stem the volunteer drain, community departments face some unpalatable choices, including consolidating stations and increasing paid staff. If that transition comes about, it won’t just be a change for departments and taxpayers but for the community’s social fabric, as well. For decades, the local fire department has been an anchoring institution, a place that served as a civic and social hub as well as a comforting presence protecting life and property. You can see the tradition reflected in successive generations of family members who’ve served as volunteers.
That’s a tradition worth honoring and preserving. Remember that when your local department holds fund-raising events. If you’re a business, consider firefighter-friendly policies. And if you’re interested in volunteering, local fire departments stand ready to answer that call, too.