In 2017, the NFPA released data revealing that volunteer firefighter numbers during 2016 and 2017 were the lowest recorded since the survey began in 1983—down to a total of 682,600 from 884,600 reported in 1983. Further volunteer firefighter shortages have been reported in Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and many other states.
The factors that are driving these shortages aren’t always obvious. Understanding the reasons behind volunteer firefighter shortages may help your station design better recruitment and retention strategies. This, in turn, can minimize costs by preventing your station from having to supplement volunteer labor with paid career firefighters.
Why Fire Programs Struggle to Retain Volunteers
Most fire station personnel will be familiar with the following challenges driving volunteer shortages:
1. Baby Boomers aging out and not being replaced by those in the younger generations
2. The inflexibility of modern employment schedules
3. The need to hold multiple jobs to make ends meet
4. The transience of modern lifestyles that makes it difficult to commit to a volunteer schedule
Volunteers aren’t always easy to get, and they can be challenging to retain. As Baby Boomers retire, the newer generation has shown not to have the same sticking power as the generations that came before. (source)
In addition, being a volunteer firefighter often requires holding and balancing multiple jobs—and those jobs need to provide the flexibility that a volunteer firefighter’s schedule demands. These days, changing jobs is more common than it was for generations prior, so committing to a volunteer schedule can be a challenge.
However, there are some more surprising factors contributing to volunteer shortages as well:
5. Increased awareness about the cancer risks associated with firefighting that increase its perception as being too risky to volunteers
6. An increase in urbanization that’s pulled potential volunteers away from rural communities (which, unfortunately, tend to need them the most) (source)
7. A shift towards handling more medical calls than fire calls, which makes volunteering seem less glamorous/appealing
According to the NFPA, firefighters face a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the general population in the U.S. Although this increased risk is no secret, it has been coming up more and more as a deterrent for volunteers.
Additionally, people who would otherwise be willing and able to serve as volunteer firefighters have been moving to urban areas in large numbers. Further, the work isn’t always as exciting or glamorous as it may seem. Nowadays, fire departments respond to far more medical calls than fires, and that doesn’t match the image that lures some people to volunteer.
6 Strategies for Retaining Volunteer Firefighters
Communities are testing a number of different strategies for mitigating the impact of volunteer shortages. In Pennsylvania, for example, a commission of emergency service organizations recommended three solutions for the state:
1. More funding for training and equipment
2. Increased incentives
3. Better online marketing
Volunteers often pay for their own gear, which can run upwards of $4,000. Easing that financial burden alone could make a significant impact in your county. Maryland has implemented some of these solutions, and the number of volunteer firefighters there has remained steady for a decade. They’ve been using grants and state aid to cover volunteers’ equipment and training costs, as well as offering state income tax credits and monthly retirement payouts for volunteers who serve for at least 25 years. (source)
That’s important because, while the number of volunteers is falling, the number of calls is rising. According to Lieutenant, Michael McLeieer, president of the Michigan State Firemen’s Association, “more and more people are not working in the same communities where they’re living; they’re actually traveling a long distance away, so they’re not available during those daytime calls.” In response, some states, such as New York, have started adding incentives for paid on-call and volunteer firefighters through reduced property taxes and tax-exempt income. (source)
But financial incentives are only one piece of the puzzle. Embracing modern methods of online marketing is vital, as is ensuring your marketing is reaching the right people—especially underrepresented demographics.
This brings us to the last three strategies. Stations can and should put more resources into recruiting women and minorities. At best, most volunteer fire departments today consist of between five and 10 percent women. This deficit is likely related to poor marketing, locally and nationally, as well as departments and communities not creating the appropriate environment for women and minorities to succeed.
Maryland is one state that’s made efforts to close this gap. According to Eric Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire Rescue association, of all their volunteers recruited in the last nine years, half are women and half are minorities. He says, in the past, “it was young white males and older white males…but we’re changing.” Not just actively recruiting women and minorities, but aligning leadership to proactively work to create a welcoming environment for women and minorities to succeed will be critical in this ever-evolving landscape.
Finally, focusing on teens in recruitment can be hugely impactful. Adding programs where teens can handle non-emergency tasks can help get them excited about firefighting at a young age. When they’re old enough to volunteer, they will, and they’ll be even better equipped to support the department.
None of these solutions alone is the be-all-end-all key to solving the complex problem of volunteer firefighter shortages. It will take a combination of these, and the appropriate recruitment and retention strategies for your fire station will vary from program to program. Understanding the causes impacting your particular station will enable you to identify the best path forward.