The Declining Membership of the Volunteer Fire Service

By DAVID A. GREENE

Is the volunteer fire service dead? A lot of firefighters think so, but the evidence shows that, despite the decline in numbers of volunteer firefighters, the volunteer fire service is far from needing resuscitation. Nevertheless, fire service leaders can do a much better job of addressing the problem. Improvement requires that we first recognize the problem as well as its magnitude.

The Problem

Since 1985, national statistics show a roughly 10-percent decline in volunteer firefighters. During this same period, populations have soared, causing call volumes to follow suit. As a practitioner and researcher, I often try to relate empirical data to actual situations that I experience. As a member of a mostly volunteer combination department, I expect to see 10 percent fewer volunteer firefighters at incidents. However, what I am seeing is worse. Recently, I have responded to auto extrications and structure fires where there have been zero volunteer firefighters in attendance. Although this is uncommon, the occurrence is disturbing and warrants great attention. How bad is the decline, and what is the cause?

As part of my Ph.D. requirements, I conducted a study of volunteer firefighters in South Carolina. During the research, many South Carolina fire service leaders contacted me to indicate that the state and national estimates of the numbers of volunteers on their rosters were grossly inaccurate. One department sampled in the study had 380 volunteer firefighters on its roster, but eventually it was found to have only 54. Overall, the maximum number of volunteer firefighters in the state of South Carolina was shown to be 8,465, which is 63.5 percent of the number estimated by state and national databases. This suggests that the problem is much bigger than the statistics show.

The Causes

Now that we know the magnitude of the problem, what exactly is its cause? The study revealed that there were two responses that were, by far, the highest in importance as a motive to join and as an expectation to continue serving. These two responses also provided, by far, the highest levels of satisfaction. These volunteers are helping others and feel a civic responsibility. “Civic responsibility” is exactly what it sounds like—the responsibility that a volunteer firefighter has to serve the public.

National statistics show that more than 70 percent of fire departments in the United States are staffed solely by volunteers. This is where civic responsibility—or the need for volunteer firefighter participation—is at its greatest. In these departments, volunteers turn out to respond in a fire apparatus for an emergency or the apparatus sits idle in the station. At the time an emergency is dispatched, a volunteer who asks, “Who will respond if I do not?” can quickly answer with, “No one.”

As call volumes or the number of services a department offers increases, governments frequently supplement volunteer staffs with paid or career personnel. The introduction of career/paid personnel into a fully volunteer department makes it a combination (career/volunteer) department. This research suggests that volunteer firefighters in combination departments serve two to six years less than those in fully volunteer departments.

Many volunteers perceive the motivation of a career firefighter as being different from that of a volunteer firefighter, primarily because of the career firefighter’s pay. This may cause disengagement by the volunteer (at least to some degree), which results in less participation and less overall incident attendance. At the point where a call for service is handled without the participation of any volunteer firefighters, the department has entered into a spiral.

Many governments respond to the decrease in volunteer participation with an increase in career personnel. Although these career personnel may first supplement volunteer responses, many departments experience continual increases in career personnel until it appears as if volunteers are supplementing career personnel, which may not mirror the intended “mostly volunteer” departmental structure.

As more career firefighters enter the department, volunteers are more likely to consider their participation as inconsequential because they will deem their civic responsibility as being lowered; this is increasingly prevalent among all-hazard, full-service departments.

For fire departments that perform advanced life support (ALS) treatment and transport, it is likely that more than 80 percent of their total call volume is devoted to ambulance runs. The bulk of these calls for service do not require the participation of volunteer firefighters and often occur too frequently for a volunteer to hope to respond to even half of them. This tends to similarly marginalize the volunteer’s participation; the department handles a large majority of the call volume without volunteer participation. Volunteer firefighters in this situation who ask, “Who will respond if I do not?” have a different answer than the wholly volunteer department scenario above. Given that it is no longer their responsibility to respond, and because the department responds without their participation, these volunteer firefighters find their civic responsibility greatly reduced and often choose to disengage from service.

This research demonstrates that helping others is the single most important and satisfying aspect of a volunteer’s participation in the fire service. A new volunteer likely finds that he lacks the basic training to be a part of interior structural firefighting. After obtaining such training, the new volunteer likely seeks to learn how to drive and operate apparatus. In a small, fully volunteer department, this may reach the limits of the emergency response tasks for which the department is responsible. In larger, full-service, all-hazard departments, services may also include technical rescue, hazardous materials response, auto extrication, and ALS treatment and transport. Even a volunteer firefighter with the means to attend every ambulance run and hazardous materials incident may not feel as if he is helping others if he lacks a paramedic certification or training as a hazardous materials technician.

Volunteer firefighters may often reflect on how their participation is helping others. Consider the volunteer who has training on interior structural firefighting. These types of incidents may represent only one percent of the annual call volume for the department. In a situation such as this, the volunteer likely feels as if he is not helping the community (except for a very small percentage of the time). Training is extremely important when it comes to helping others. Citizens call 911 when they do not know what to do, and no one who is part of that 911 response wants to be the one who does not know what to do.

Volunteer firefighters often have much more difficulty accessing training. Class schedules may often interfere with the volunteer’s full-time employment, and there is no more evident a case of this than paramedic school. It is often designed for full-time fire service employees working 24-hour shifts. Roughly two-thirds of the class has students working on day one; attending class on day two; doing a ride-along or clinical rotation on day three; followed, again, by work. Volunteer firefighters with full-time jobs outside of the fire service are not likely to convince their employers to allow them to be off two days out of three. When the department spends a large bulk of its time performing ALS treatment and transport, this training is essential and yet largely unattainable for our volunteers. Without training, volunteer firefighters likely do not feel as if they are helping others and may choose to disengage from service.

Potential Solutions

Fire service leaders need to understand the effects of reducing civic responsibility. When I first started in the fire service as a volunteer, I was told that if I missed two training drills in a row, I would be kicked off the roster. When I missed a call, I was asked why I did not attend. The leadership made it sound as if it needed me.

What we see quite often today, in an effort to bolster retention, is that leadership now responds to a lower level of participation in training and emergencies with lower standards. When our volunteer firefighters stop participating, the last thing we need to tell them is that we are requiring them to participate less. If anything, we need to be telling them that we need them more than ever because of the increase in call volume and the importance of training.

I am not suggesting we require every volunteer to put in 100 hours a week at the station, but we simply cannot continue to have limited to no performance standards for our volunteers and then be upset when they give us limited to no performance. When we tell them that they do not have to come to training or calls, we are taking away their civic responsibility, something that research demonstrates is highly important to our volunteer firefighters. Plainly, when our standards for volunteer firefighter training and incident attendance are low, we are telling our volunteers that we do not need them.

We should constantly evaluate how our volunteers are helping others. Consider the life cycle of volunteer firefighters. They join and obtain training to participate in fire suppression activities. At some point, they decide that they are too old to fight fires anymore and will simply drive the apparatus to emergencies. If we remove that opportunity by placing paid drivers in the stations, our volunteers may decide that they will help by ordering supplies for the station. It is not financially responsible for one station to order a set of size 11 boots when its neighboring station—under the same government—has five sets of size 11 boots sitting on a shelf. If we remove the “ordering supplies” opportunity for volunteers by creating a centralized logistics center, which takes advantage of economies of scale and is much more financially responsible, then our volunteers may decide that they will just balance the checkbooks. If we centralize purchasing and bill paying in an administrative office, our volunteers likely have no other options to contribute or help.

Helping others is the single most important and satisfying motive to join and expectation to continue serving among volunteer firefighters. Helping others is why volunteer firefighters volunteer. We need to be sure we are affording them the opportunities to fulfill this need.

Our volunteer firefighters need to feel that (1) they are responsible for the public’s safety and (2) their participation helps others. As fire service leaders, when was the last time we told our volunteers that? Instead of lowering performance standards, perhaps we should be telling our volunteers that what they do to help others makes a difference; we need them to participate because they protect the public and that, as members of this department, it is their responsibility. Structure fires may be a small part of what we do, but consider today’s battleground compared to decades past. Today’s fires involve fuel packages with greater heat release rates than we have ever witnessed. That heat release is being contained inside of energy-efficient construction designed to prevent temperature exchange with the outside environment. Quite often, all of this is occurring underneath roofs that are glued together and fail quickly.

The fire service needs its volunteers more today than ever. We should not let the additional responsibilities with which the fire service has been tasked distract us from that fact. Consider what your department’s training and performance standards are telling your volunteer firefighters. Evaluate how you can provide your volunteers the opportunity to help others. We should all thank our volunteer firefighters for their service and make it clear to them that the volunteer fire service is not dead and that we still need them, perhaps now more than ever.


DAVID A. GREENE, Ph.D., is a 25-plus-year fire service veteran and the deputy chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He has a Ph.D. in fire and emergency management administration from Oklahoma State University, an MBA from the University of South Carolina, a BS from the College of Charleston, and an associate degree in fire science from Pikes Peak Community College. Greene serves on the editorial board and is a regular contributor to Carolina Fire-Rescue EMS Journal. He is a certified executive fire officer through the National Fire Academy, has the Chief Fire Officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, is Member grade in the Institution of Fire Engineers, is an advanced hazardous materials life support provider/instructor through the Arizona Emergency Medicine Research Center at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine, and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. Greene is also a nationally registered paramedic, is certified through Fire Officer IV, is a resident fire marshal, and is a certified fire and explosion investigator through the National Association of Fire Investigators.

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