Photo courtesy of the Alaska National Guard.
By Steve Hirsch
Some time ago, I taught a class at a regional fire school in Hoisington, Kansas. The fire training was held at the local high school. Parked in front of it was the Hoisington Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD) command vehicle. Emblazoned on the side of the vehicle was the phrase, “Neighbors helping neighbors in their time of need.” It sure caught my eye, and it really summed up the entire reason why volunteers in the fire and emergency medical services are needed so badly.
A legislative report released last year in Pennsylvania indicated that, in the 1970s, there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the Commonwealth, but that this number had dwindled to about 38,000 in recent counts. Many small and rural communities across the country may not be surprised as they, too, feel the pain of declining membership and greater challenges to recruitment and retention. We also know that call volumes in the U.S. have skyrocketed, increasing by 300 percent in the last 30 years, putting more and more demand on local departments.
These numbers may raise concern among some about the future of the volunteer fire service, and yet across America every day—probably every minute of every day—a volunteer firefighter or a volunteer emergency medical services (EMS) provider is out there helping his neighbors in their time of need.
When looking at the full picture, the critical role volunteers play in our nation’s emergency services becomes clearer. Many communities depend on volunteers to provide their emergency services, and volunteers still make up the bulk of our nation’s firefighters. According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 800,000 of America’s 1.1 million firefighters are volunteers. Of the nearly 30,000 fire departments in this great land, more than 25,000 are either mostly or completely volunteer. The volunteer fire service saves taxpayers nearly $50 billion a year compared to what they would pay with a career service. If you add volunteer EMS into that mix, the number would be even more staggering.
In communities such as mine in Kansas, these emergency services simply would not exist without volunteer firefighters or EMS providers. Think about having your house on fire and no one responds. In my community, the closest mutual aid is at least 20 miles away. That means that anyone trapped in a fire would have no chance of survival. Think about being upside down in a car that has crashed and the closest aid is a half hour away (at best). This is why those of us who volunteer are so committed to our beloved profession. Neighbors helping neighbors in their time of need. If it were my family, I’d want someone to respond. But I just can’t say it is someone else’s job to do that; I must be prepared to make that commitment myself.
So, why is it that we see a marked decrease in the number of volunteers in some departments? If we knew exactly what the “disease” was, we wouldn’t need to spend so much on the cure. I suspect it is multifaceted. Over the years, our smaller communities have gotten a little older, demographically. Some communities have no jobs, and their citizens work in another community. Both mom and dad must work now to make ends meet, leaving less time for a time-intensive volunteer commitment. School events take up nearly every evening—one community in northwest Kansas recently held wrestling tournaments on Sunday morning! And yet, despite these factors, all across America there are fire departments and EMS agencies that seem to have no trouble at all finding recruits. To me, this indicates that the challenges are not insurmountable, and that there are many people out there who are willing to step up and be the neighbor helping neighbors in their time of need. Perhaps all they need is a little nudge or the right encouragement to lead them down this path.
Some will say it is the younger generation who don’t see the need to volunteer. Maybe that is right, but I have my doubts about that. I find the younger generation in my department every bit as committed to the fire service as those of us in the previous generation. Frankly (and this is an overgeneralization), many times it comes down to the agency’s leadership. I am excited when I go to a town to teach and see a mix of older firefighters and brand-new ones. The younger crowd has the stamina to get things done, and the older ones keep them from making the same mistakes they made that hurt and kill firefighters. Recruitment is a 24/7 task that just never ends, and it shouldn’t. A fire or EMS agency that has all old people is one that will struggle. A fire or EMS agency that has a mix of ages is one that thrives.
Why do I volunteer? Because I want to serve my neighbors. We are told, in a great piece of literature, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And just as in that book, we are called to make disciples, so too must we be making new firefighter disciples. It is exciting to see new people come into the fire service, to bring a fresh energy, and to simply want to help out their neighbors. So, friends, this is the great commission—go forth and make new volunteer firefighters. Talk about the positive things in the fire and EMS fields. Talk about how rewarding it is to help out your neighbors. And, if that isn’t incentive enough, remind them that if they ever need help from a fire or an EMS agency, they’ll be glad those bay doors come open and those trucks hit the streets when the call to help sounds, when their neighbors need them most.
Steve Hirsch is a training officer for Kansas’s Sheridan County Fire District #1, Thomas County Fire District #4, and the Grinnell Fire Department, all of which are 100 percent volunteer fire departments. He is the chair and Kansas director for the National Volunteer Fire Council and has served as secretary of the Kansas State Firefighters Association since 2000. Hirsch is also the county attorney for Kansas’s Decatur County. He also has a private law practice and serves as city attorney for 18 cities in Kansas’s Norton, Phillips, Graham, Mitchell, Rawlins, Decatur, Sheridan, Thomas, and Gove counties.