With fire departments struggling for volunteers, states respond to the alarm

More than 80% of U.S. fire departments are composed mostly of volunteers

By: - April 25, 2023 6:30 am
Merion Fire Company of Ardmore, Pa.

Fire trucks outside the Merion Fire Company of Ardmore, Pa. (Submitted photo)

By Alex Brown

When firefighters show up to a blaze or medical emergency across much of the United States, they most likely are volunteers. It’s also likely the department is understaffed, struggling to replace old equipment and facing uncertainty about its next generation of firefighters.

“So much of our country relies on the volunteer fire service,” said Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications with the National Volunteer Fire Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “Right now, we’re seeing less volunteers and more calls [for emergency response], but a lot of communities don’t have the tax base and support to switch to a career staffing model.”

More than 80% of the nation’s fire departments are made up entirely or mostly of volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Volunteers comprise 65% of U.S. firefighters overall. But participation has dwindled, from nearly 900,000 volunteers in 1984 to a low of 677,000 in 2020. Meanwhile, fire departments have responded to more than triple the number of calls over that same period.

With volunteer departments stretched thin, some states have begun their own response. Lawmakers from both parties have advanced bills to provide financial benefits or tax breaks for volunteers or funding for new equipment, in hopes of incentivizing firefighters to join up or stay in service. Without state investments to keep volunteer agencies afloat, the lawmakers say, taxpayers would have to support full-time firefighters or face risks to public safety.

While some departments have brought on full-time paid firefighters to fill the gaps volunteers can’t cover, many communities, especially in rural areas, can’t afford the cost of a professional fire service. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that the time donated by volunteer firefighters saves communities nearly $47 billion each year.

“Counties would have to increase taxes to have paid departments out there, or insurance premiums would go up substantially,” said Mississippi state Rep. Donnie Scoggin, a Republican. “The amount of money volunteers save us makes a huge difference for the taxpayer, and right now we are not able to recruit and retain enough firemen.”

Scoggin sponsored a bill, passed unanimously this session and signed into law, that will establish a Length of Service Award Program for volunteer firefighters in Mississippi. For every year of service, they will receive $500 placed in an investment fund, eligible to be withdrawn with interest when they retire from the department.

“We see this as a means to recruit new firefighters and encourage retention of the valuable firefighters we already have,” said John Pope, president of the Mississippi Firefighter’s Association and chief of the Collins Fire Department. “It’s going to save lives.”

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Fire agency leaders say the reasons for volunteer departments’ struggles are myriad. Many young people are leaving rural areas, which are more likely to rely on volunteer service. The rise in two-income households means fewer people have available time to volunteer. Most states now have extensive training requirements, which can be a time-consuming and costly barrier for new recruits.

At the same time, many fire departments now are expected to respond to medical emergencies, hazmat incidents, active shooter situations and other scenarios that have drastically increased call volumes.

“It seems like there’s more and more runs every year, they’re almost full-time,” said Michigan state Sen. Jon Bumstead, a Republican and former volunteer firefighter. “There’s no health care, no retirement. If we’re going to fully man these departments, we’ve got to start offering more than what we are now.”

Bumstead sponsored a bill that would expand worker compensation benefits to volunteer firefighters and part-time police officers. He noted that volunteer firefighters face risks even while training and shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket if they’re injured or develop a health issue. He also called for future legislation requiring the state to cover the costs of the extensive training programs it requires volunteers to undertake.

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The Pennsylvania Senate voted unanimously earlier this year to establish three pilot programs at community colleges and universities to offer fire training to interested high school students. The bill is currently before a House committee.

In South Dakota, lawmakers voted this year to allocate $5 million to help volunteer fire departments cover equipment costs. State Rep. Kevin Jensen, the bill’s Republican sponsor, said his son had to spend $600 for boots when he joined the fire service.

“To equip one firefighter can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000,” Jensen said. “Over 99% of the landmass in South Dakota is covered by volunteer fire departments that get no formal funding. Some departments are using outdated equipment but don’t have the money to do anything about it.”

The pandemic made it difficult for fire departments to conduct the pancake and chili fundraisers that traditionally had propped up their budgets, Jensen said, setting them back further. He said some fire agencies have had to turn away volunteers because they can’t equip them, making the state funding an important tool for increasing staffing as well.

Last year, New York lawmakers unanimously passed a measure enabling local municipalities to enact property tax breaks of up to 10% for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers. Then-Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, a Republican, sponsored that bill and now serves as Putnam County executive. The county adopted the 10% tax break earlier this year.

“It’s hard to get young members, and it needs to be sustainable so they can justify going to a call at 3 in the morning and leaving their loved ones,” Byrne said.

“That’s where the property tax exemption is meaningful and makes it easier for people to justify the work,” he said. “If we were to shift from a volunteer fire service to a municipal tax-funded fire service, it would cost so much more money than what this exemption is. It pays for itself and then some.”

Meanwhile, Wyoming lawmakers enacted a law last month to allocate $9 million to the state’s volunteer firefighter pension fund, replacing money that had been diverted to keep a fund for paid firefighters solvent. State Rep. Sandy Newsome, the bill’s Republican sponsor, said the state’s current funding surplus made it an opportune time to restore the pension account. She called it a “helpful tool,” if not the determining factor, in recruiting volunteers.

Ryan Woodward, chief of legislative and regulatory affairs with the National Volunteer Fire Council, said many leaders are looking at financial incentives to keep volunteer departments in service.

“Volunteers serve a really irreplaceable role within a majority of communities in the United States,” he said. “There are a number of people out there who say, ‘Hey, it could be good to serve my community,’ but may be on the fence and need that extra push.”

Alex Brown is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where this story first appeared

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