Community Firefighters Never Let Us Down
Fewer new recruits are joining our towns' volunteer forces, but department leaders are determined to turn that around
Around the United States, communities are built by those who inhabit them. Small towns rely on a sense of community in order to prosper and thrive; they need individuals to pitch in to make their towns and villages a better place to live and work. Local offerings such as garden plots, farmers markets, school bake sales, other fundraisers, and so much more are often the result.
One thing most communities absolutely need — and often don’t think about how this is achieved — is their local fire service.
“We have to make sure the community is taken care of, so the more ideas, the better.”
Nearly 70 percent of firefighters around the United States are volunteer — meaning these men and women spend their off-hours and free time to help keep and make their communities safe. These hardworking people preserve life, limb and property if and when the situation arises. In some of the country’s largest cities, such as New York City and Los Angeles, the volume of fire calls and the massive amount of land and property to cover means that a robust, and paid, fire department is necessary. In smaller areas, however, your neighbor next door or down the block could be the one saving your life in the middle of the night.
But as communities become more expensive to live in and as younger individuals seek out more affordable living situations, generally in larger cities, volunteer fire services are becoming strained by the lack of new young recruits.
While overall volume has tripled since 1984, the number of actual volunteers has dropped by 10 percent, as a recent Wall Street Journal pointed out. Many volunteers are also growing older and simply cannot keep up with the responsibilities tied to the position — while the young recruits that would train them find themselves priced out of the very neighborhoods they would serve.
In many instances, a volunteer firefighter must either live or work in the town he or she serves, in order to be a member of that local fire department. With a rapidly changing economy, that longstanding requirement isn’t always possible these days. To combat this, fire departments are now loosening their requirements to bring more members on board.
“The old rules simply weren’t feasible,” said one former fire captain in Westchester County, New York. “We’ve had to make exceptions in which the firefighter essentially petitions to stay active and must still meet the minimum criteria of activity to stay on, but he doesn’t have to live here anymore. We have to react to the times.”
This captain added, “It’s not easy to live in these communities when a one-bedroom runs almost $2,000 a month. We don’t have say over those prices, but we have to make sure the community is taken care of — the more ideas, the better.”
Watching longtime, heavily active firefighters lay down their bunker gear because of economics has forced fire departments to act.
"We had people who were making over 70 percent of the calls we get — which means hundreds of calls a year — leave town because they couldn't afford it," said this captain. "They wanted to keep going but the rules stopped them." He added, "You lose a ton when someone like that leaves. For the firehouse and for the town, it's not good."
While many departments can hope to remain vigilant with an older and experienced group of firefighters on their force, the time will come when new recruits must make an impact. Volunteer fire departments take great pride in serving their neighborhoods, and they don't hesitate to adapt when it comes to making sure those they serve get the very best services possible.
To that end, adapting has become necessary — and provides a healthy outlook for these services in the future.
Affordable housing units in many municipalities are offered first to volunteer firefighters, EMS workers, or employees of the town. This not only bolsters the ranks but allow families to lay roots for generations to come, when they might otherwise have been priced out. Opening the ranks to those outside of the municipalities, while often tricky, could keep the roster steady and filled with those who have a genuine passion for serving in the communities in which they live.
Volunteer fire departments around the nation are filled with some of the most resourceful, creative people in the United States. Fortifying the services for years to come is possible, even as day-to-day expenses rise and hit the middle class hard. Even so — a sense of service is one that cannot be easily dismissed.