Over the past few weeks, I’ve been touring volunteer fire departments and talking to firefighters and emergency workers in all regions of our great state.
These firefighters, who selflessly give their time and effort to help all of us in almost any kind of emergency, confirmed something I already knew: Many volunteer fire departments are struggling with membership recruitment and retention.
The problem isn’t new, nor is it unique to North Carolina. Volunteer fire departments are having difficulty recruiting and retaining members nationwide.
It wasn’t always that way. Cherryville Fire Chief Jeff Cash told our office that decades ago, things were a lot different.
“When I first broke into the service back in the late 1970s, volunteer fire departments had a waiting list,” Chief Cash said. He serves on the Executive Committee of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC). He said that “someone almost had to die” to create a volunteer firefighting vacancy when he first got into fire service.
The NVFC has studied the issue and notes that there is no one reason for the shortage. Among the top factors, the report says, are “more demands on people’s time in a hectic modern society; more stringent training requirements; population shifts from smaller towns to urban centers; changes in the nature of small town industry and farming; internal leadership problems; and a decline in the sense of civic responsibility.”
Previously, when more businesses were locally owned, business-owners were more vested in their communities. They’d let their employees take off to fight fires. Now, many businesses not locally owned don’t look as favorably toward such practices.
In addition, many employees now have longer commutes to work. That makes it more difficulty for would-be firefighters to balance time spent with their families and time necessary for fire department training and firefighting.
Speaking of training, volunteer firefighters in North Carolina are required to complete 36 hours of training every year to qualify for certain benefits. Local departments are also allowed to set other training standards and are required to offer at least four hours of training a month for their members.
The NVFC report also notes other reasons that fire departments may have difficulty retaining volunteers. Cultural reasons and department leadership come into play. Some volunteers may not feel like they fit in, or may feel that the organization is too cliquish.
Just as there is no one reason for the membership recruitment and retention problem, there is no one solution.
However, part of the solution is to encourage younger men and women to get involved in firefighting and emergency services.
As the State Fire Marshal, I recently visited the High School Firefighter Challenge held in Buncombe County. I could see some of the classwork and hands-on training that these teenagers were getting.
Last fall, 27 of our high schools had firefighter academy programs, where teenagers can learn firefighting skills and fight virtual fires. More high school programs could be added this fall. These classes are taught by firefighters, people who know what they’re doing. Of course, we don’t let students younger than 18 fight actual fires.
Other fire departments have a junior firefighter program, allowing teenagers to learn the skills and develop a rapport with volunteer and professional mentors.
Both programs produce gung-ho firefighters. Many go on to professional or volunteer firefighting. Some do both.
I applaud the youth who are training to make a difference in their communities, along with all the fire chiefs and firefighters – both volunteer and professional – who literally risk their lives to save ours and make our communities safer.
These youth programs will help with our fire department recruitment needs. But they won’t solve all the problems. I encourage leaders in volunteer fire departments to make an extra effort to make sure that their members have a sense of belonging. The NVFC report offers suggestions on how to do that.
The need for firefighters and first responders will have to be met. If we’re unable to get enough volunteers, counties and their taxpayers will feel the pressure to fill the void. Having ample volunteer firefighters can result in lives saved, injuries prevented, property protected, savings on insurance premiums, and potentially savings on local property taxes.
In closing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank all the firefighters and emergency personnel for the work that they do in making North Carolina’s communities a great place to live. I also want to thank their families for the sacrifices they make when these men and women answer the call of public service.