Washington, D.C. - Newsday, a New York City-based newspaper, recently ran a series of articles that portray the volunteer fire service on Long Island in a negative light. The articles claim that volunteer departments there have an overabundance of resources and spend taxpayer dollars frivolously. The Firemen's Association of the State of New York (FASNY) is responding vigorously to these charges. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has been in contact with FASNY and will continue to monitor this situation.
In light of the recent articles, the NVFC would like to clarify that the description of the volunteer fire service in Newsday does not reflect the state of the volunteer fire service nationally. According to a study conducted by the Public Safety and Environmental Protection Institute at St. Joseph's University, it would cost American taxpayers $37.2 billion more annually if all volunteer firefighters nationwide were replaced with career staffing. Most of this cost savings comes in smaller, rural communities that don't have a large enough tax base to support a career department.
The reality is that very few volunteer fire departments receive adequate funding from government sources. According to A Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service, a 2002 study by the US Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association, a majority of mostly- and all-volunteer fire departments have to raise private funds beyond what they are provided in tax dollars in order to function. Between 10 and 20 percent of the revenue for mostly- and all-volunteer departments comes from fundraising. In addition, fire departments serving smaller communities, which tend to be mostly- or all-volunteer, are overwhelmingly less likely to have the costs of apparatus replacement covered by their normal budget.
One item mentioned in the Newsday articles that is not in question is that the volunteer fire service faces serious challenges in retaining and recruiting members. The inherent danger involved in fighting fires has always been a major difficulty to overcome in recruiting new members. Each year, approximately 60 volunteer firefighters lose their lives in the line of duty.
Over the past few decades, retention and recruitment has become increasingly difficult because of population mobility, strict training requirements, distant employment, and two-income and single parent households. Since 1983, the number of volunteer firefighters in America has declined from more than 880,000 to around 800,000 today.
The NVFC supports several pieces of legislation that would aid retention and recruitment by making membership in the volunteer fire service more attractive. The Supporting Emergency Responders Volunteer Efforts Act* would provide a $1,000 annual tax credit for active members of volunteer fire and EMS organizations. The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act** would prevent the Internal Revenue Service from taxing the nominal compensation awarded to local volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders for service to their communities. No one becomes a volunteer firefighter for financial gain, but measures like these raise morale by showing volunteers that they are appreciated. A little help in the pocketbook may also allow a family to forgo taking on an extra job to make ends meet, which can play a huge role in determining whether or not someone has enough time to volunteer.
Another issue that can determine whether someone chooses to volunteer is how their services are utilized. Some volunteer firefighters quit because they are tired of fundraising and performing other non-operational duties. Many people aren't interested in fighting fires but would be willing to perform other tasks for their local fire departments if given the opportunity.
The NVFC has partnered with the Department of Homeland Security through the Fire Corps program to help connect willing volunteers to fire departments. Fire Corps is a locally-driven federal program that provides fire & EMS departments with resources to create, improve, and market programs that retain and recruit volunteers for non-operational support roles providing a benefit to both the department and the community. It serves as a gateway to information for and about fire department programs and meets a citizen's desire to serve as well as a department's need for support. The NVFC has had a lead role in the creation and implementation of the program since inception in 2004 along with Fire Corps partners the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The volunteer fire service is a positive force in communities all across the country. Volunteer firefighters dedicate their time and risk their lives to keep their families and neighbors safe. As a nation, we should honor their efforts by helping the volunteer fire service meet and overcome the numerous challenges that it faces.
* The Supporting Emergency Responders Volunteer Efforts Act was introduced as H.R. 934 by Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and as S. 265 by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY).
** The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act was introduced as H.R. 1405 by Representative John Larson (D-CT) and as S. 1906 by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT).