According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, volunteers make up 69 percent of all firefighters in the United States, yet the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has declined by over 18 percent in the last 20 years.
These statistics worry some local organizations that rely on volunteers to be a first line of defense in many types of emergencies, including fires, emergency medical incidents and natural disasters.
Van Buren Fire Department Chief Charles Hill said his volunteer force has been regularly shrinking for a number of years. There are currently four volunteers on VBFD’s roster, well under Hill’s ideal number of 25 to 30.
“I’ve talked to fire chiefs all the way across this nation, and we’re all having the same problem,” Hill says. “It’s not just Bloomington, Indiana. It’s not just the state of Indiana – this is a nationwide problem. People don’t volunteer to be firemen anymore.”
The VBFD puts out a call for volunteers once or twice each year. Hill says of the seven that responded, four showed up for the mandatory testing, two made it through the testing, and only one is still with the department at this time.
Hill attributes the shortage to the current economic situation. He said the time commitment required to train for and take on an unpaid role as a first responder is simply not a priority for those trying to support a family.
“People are too busy, they’re all working two and three jobs to try and survive,” Hill explains. “If you’ve got a wife and kids and all that, you can’t give up the hours that this requires and still feed your family. There [are] just not enough hours in the day.”
Basic requirements to become a volunteer firefighter include state-mandated firefighting training and a significant amount of additional medical training. Hill says it all adds up to a around 96-hour commitment.
“It sounds pretty easy, but that’s a lot of classroom time,” Hill says.
Having fewer volunteers can sometimes affect a department’s ability to respond to emergency situations. In order to help smaller organizations like Hill’s, the Monroe County Fire Chief’s Association established a mutual aid system, whereby departments can put out a call for additional personnel or equipment from their neighbors when needed.
“Mutual aid departments are a really big thing,” says Hill, who just this week relied on help from five other local departments to suppress the blaze at the AMVETS building. “We all scratch each other’s back to get along.”
Van Buren regularly relies on aid from the Bloomington Township Fire Department, which currently relies on the services of 39 regular volunteers.
The department’s close proximity to the IU-Bloomington campus means they receive interest from a number of students interested in volunteering as a means to complement their studies. A little over half of Chief Faron Livingston’s volunteer staff is comprised of IU students.
Chief Livingston says his situation is unique, and he feels “very fortunate” to be able to rely on the services of volunteers who, in many cases, are only otherwise obligated to academics.
“It’s not that [regular citizens] are not concerned about their community, but you’ve got to have time for your family and you’ve got to have time to yourself, so something’s got to give,” Livingston says.
Similar to other departments around the country, the BTFD relies on an incentive program to attract volunteers. The Length of Service Awards Program employs a points system to entice community members to not only join the force, but also to actively participate. Rewards are one solution recommended by the U.S. Fire Administration to recruit and retain volunteers.
Both Chief Hill and Chief Livingston say they are always in need of more help and they encourage anyone who is interested in volunteering to do so.