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Local Communities Struggle to Recruit Enough Firefighters

Beside fires, the list of duties modern departments have been tasked with includes medical emergencies, terrorist events, natural disasters, hazardous materials incidents, water rescue emergencies, high-angle and confined space emergencies and other general public service calls.

by Dmitriy Shapiro, The Daily Telegram, Adrian, Mich. / December 12, 2016

(TNS) - It was mid-afternoon, on the first day of deer season and Chief Joe Tuckey of the Tecumseh, MIch., Fire Department was multitasking, furiously, in his office.

He shuffled through paperwork, answered residents' phone calls requesting burn permits to get rid of some of the fall foliage they'd collected over the weekend, and even opened the station's front door to greet a traveling salesman pitching firefighting equipment. Approximately 10 minutes prior, Tuckey drove one of the city's two bright yellow fire trucks back to the station after responding to a burning Chevy Blazer that was threatening the house it was parked in front of. And, had it not been for Tuckey, three Tecumseh paid-on-call firefighters who left their deer blinds to answer the call, some Tecumseh police officers and mutual aid from the Raisin Township Fire Department, the blaze could have cost the homeowner - and possibly neighbors - more than a fire-damaged garage door and a roasted, 15-year-old, spontaneously combusting SUV.

Usually for such calls at his mixed full-time and paid-on-call department, Tuckey, who has served the department since 1986 and as chief since 1993, would have eight to 10 firefighters responding.

"Today it was unusual because it's deer hunting and I know they're all out in the woods. And that's why I called Raisin right away, because I knew that I was going to be short." Tuckey said.

Mutual aid calls are not unusual, Tuckey said, noting that the day before, his department had assisted Raisin with a car-train collision.

"I would normally have a second guy with me on my shift up until 1 o'clock. But he's hunting, so I was down a man already today," Tuckey said. "But that's just the nature of the beast. We adapt. I mean, I call Raisin, I can call Clinton, I can get any number of departments."

While deer season had made the day difficult for Tuckey, veteran firefighters nationally have all been grumbling about the same problem in recent years - it's just harder to recruit and maintain enough volunteer or paid-on-call firefighters and get them to respond to calls, than it used to be.

Fewer firefighters, more calls

In Lenawee County, where all fire departments are some portion, if not a large majority, volunteer - a term that is often used interchangeably to refer to both true volunteers, who may only receive a small stipend for their services, and those who are paid-on-call, as both don't call firefighting their primary livelihood - there are concerns that the situation could become worse as the average age of the current crop of volunteers grows and is not replenished due to a long list of economic and social factors that figure into the reality of many who would be of prime firefighting age.

According to a report titled "U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2014," published last January by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) - a Quincy, Massachusetts-based global nonprofit that analyzes fire prevention - 69 percent of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteer or paid-on-call. The same report records a 12 percent drop in their numbers between 1984 and 2014, while the population has grown by 27 percent between the 1980 and 2010 census.

"But more alarmingly, the call volume has tripled in the same time. So there's slightly less firefighters out there, but there are triple the calls," Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), said.

A nonprofit based in Greenbelt, Maryland, NVFC represents the interests of volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services in legislative advocacy and standards setting, as well as spearheading nationwide campaigns to help in recruitment, education, and health and wellness. The group also keeps a close eye on the trends effecting volunteer firefighters and departments in the U.S.

"One of the reasons the calls have tripled isn't because of fires, it's actually because of emergency medical incidents," Quiros said. "So when you're looking at 30, 40 years ago, a firefighter's responsibility was putting out fires. Nowadays, the responsibility of the firefighter has expanded tremendously."

Beside fires, the list of duties modern departments have been tasked with includes medical emergencies, terrorist events, natural disasters, hazardous materials incidents, water rescue emergencies, high-angle and confined space emergencies and other general public service calls, according to an NVFC fact sheet.

The overbroad mission assigned to fire departments, as well as the additional training required to fulfill these duties, has made it more difficult for potential recruits to make the required sacrifices, and many fire chiefs in Lenawee County are feeling the squeeze.

'You need a bigger commitment now'

Career firefighters, like Tim Bartenslager, interim chief of the Adrian Fire Department, said they have definitely noticed the change over the span of their careers.

"You need a bigger commitment now than you did back in the day because we didn't have all the regulations pushing us for the training and all the required hours that you need to be a firefighter now," said Bartenslager, who has been a professional firefighter for 27 years.

Bartenslager points to the yearly training requirements set by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) and various other state and national fire and medical training requirements that have steadily grown over the decades, especially since the 1990s. According to Bartenslager, to remain an active part of the department, a volunteer has to complete yearly mandatory training hours in firefighting, as well as additional trainings that include EMS training, training to maintain their medical license, and department and organizational training.

"We struggle as fire chiefs trying to find proper, adequate personnel to respond in emergency incidents," Bartenslager said. "If you take into account people working harder, working longer hours, working more jobs, I think that's where you'll see the big difference was 20, 30 years ago."

Madison Township Fire Chief Ryan Rank, a 25-year fire service veteran, also noted the increasing amount of training hours during his career, especially when it comes to emergency medical service and continuing education requirements.

"You know, it's hard enough for me as a full-time person to keep up the requirements that I have to, I can't imagine what a volunteer paid-on-call person - the amount of sacrifice that they have to do," Rank said.

"It's a shame," Addison Fire Department Chief Tim Shaw, who is nearing his 30th year in the fire service, agreed. "When we got on, you could take a firefighter class or you get to opt out and just take the training in-house. And now you've got to go through Firefighter 1 and 2 (courses), which are equivalent to a year of college by the time you get everything in. And then if you want to go into EMS, that's another year. And then if you want to go as a paramedic, that's another two years," Shaw said. "So you got a bachelor's degree and you can take that and go make $10 to $12 an hour."

Bartenslager, while regretting the inconvenience such commitment requires, believes it is necessary.

"I don't think (training hours) should be reduced. I just think it's getting harder and harder. Because if we reduced the amount of training, then we have safety issues with that as well," he said. "I think over the years, firefighters have gotten either hurt or killed and they recognize that we need to train on certain topics."

Changing job market affects fire departments too

Recruiting is not the only problem faced by the departments. The chiefs are also noticing a significant difference in the number of responders they get coming to the station per call even among their active volunteers and they agree that economic changes and social norms are major contributors to that problem. As manufacturing facilities disappeared from many of the county's municipalities, so too did the ready stock of volunteers. Today, even if volunteers live in town, they most likely commute for work to cities like Ann Arbor, Jackson or Toledo, just to name a few.

"It used to be different," Tuckey reminisced. "It used to be everybody who was on the fire department, lived and worked in the city."

At the time, Tecumseh's fire station was downtown, in a building that has since become a fine-dining establishment. Also nearby, was the sprawling, former Tecumseh Products Co. factory that employed many of the city's residents during its heyday.

"When we were downtown, the guys would just come running across parking lots and hop on the truck and go," Tuckey said, before the jobs dried up. Now most of the volunteers that respond to calls during the workday are downtown business owners and some of their employees.

The factories "would let guys leave, and for the most part… they wouldn't dock their pay," Rank said. "It was just something they did for their community."

Michael McLeieer, third vice president and public information officer for the Michigan State Firemen's Association, who monitors fire safety and prevention issues in the state, confirmed the chiefs' concerns. Apart from many communities now serving a purely residential purpose - making it impossible for volunteers to commute the long distance between work and their local fire department when a call comes in - he has noticed additional hardships since the "Great Recession" of the late 2000s that he believes compounds the predicament faced by those in their 20s and 30s looking to volunteer.

"It's not a matter of people going (into work) at 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and at night they're in the community and they're able to volunteer…," McLeieer said. "Now, they're working one job and going to the next job…. We're seeing more and more people working multiple jobs just to make ends meet."

This trend has also been exacerbated by social changes. No longer does the husband come home to his wife - who as a stay-at-home mother, is responsible for the kids - after a day at work before he runs to answer a fire call at the station with the rest of the boys. With today's generation, higher rates of single-parent households and households with both working adults, make it difficult for either parent to resond at a moment's notice to an emergency.

"If they're working weird hours, they're not usually home together," Rank said. "If a call comes in - well, what are they going to do with the kid? And the same when they share custody."

A generational shift?

According to McLeieer, there are fewer problems among the older, established firefighters and not as many problems with the youngest volunteers in their late teens or early 20s, as with those over 25 years old.

"By 25, they're starting to think of career aspirations, they're starting to think of goals and objectives and where they want to be in life," McLeieer said, adding that at that age, many are in serious relationships and are thinking of starting, or have already started, a family.

McLeieer, who is also a lieutenant with the Olivet Fire Department, has also noticed cultural distinctions among millennial recruits.

"The other problem that we're seeing is many of our millennials getting into the fire service don't have a technical background," McLeieer said. "So by that I mean, take the iPad or the iPhone away from them and they're not able to do the critical thinking that you need to do as a firefighter. And by that I mean, we need to do quick thinking, strategic thinking very fast, because no two emergencies are the same. And some of our millennial generation is used to obtaining their information through social media, Googling it or what have you. So their critical-thinking skills, I think, aren't there either.

"These are folks who may have never used a chainsaw, they may have never chopped firewood - and these are the same skill sets used when we're ventilating a house, when we're doing vehicle extrication, things like that. These are skill sets that are more natural to, I think, the older generation."

Whether it's because of economic or social reasons, McLeieer said that there are shifts in how the next generation volunteers.

"I think really, we're seeing a different shift in community giving, let me put it that way," he said. "I'm not saying that families aren't wanting to give back to the community, but when they look at the amount of training, the number of hours and the risk that a firefighter - whether it's career or volunteer - may encounter, they have to think twice about that, especially when they're raising that family."

According to Shaw, the most common excuse he encounters is, "I just don't have time."

Calling the excuse a pet peeve of his, Shaw said that he usually responds by saying, "You need to thank God that there are enough people out there who do make the time to help somebody in need."

Danielle Stites, a paid-on-call firefighter with Shaw's department and as a female, still a rarity in the mostly male dominated firefighting universe, agreed that her generation should be more benevolent with their time. Stites, who is 21 years old and a full-time nursing student at Jackson College, has faced some of these same difficulties.

"During nursing school, we have school every day during the week and a lot of studying on our off time. I try to make every call I can, whether it's 2 a.m. or right when I get out of school," Stites said.

She and three others with the department who are all between the ages of 19 and 22, try to volunteer outside of the paid calls. She also volunteered her time to decorate the trucks for Addison's Christmas parade.

Stites, who has no children and is not married - though she says she's "close" - said she feels like the department is her second family. Stites hopes to encourage more in her generation to join, but does notice a reticence.

"A lot of people want to get paid for everything that they do," she said, refering to her generation. "We get paid on calls and stuff, but to do some volunteer time, it's rough."

An NVFC report titled Retention & Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services: Challenges & Solutions, published in May 2007, included a long list of social reasons the study identified that echo Shaw and Stites' opinion. The study lists a decreased emphasis on social aspects of volunteering, transience, loss of community pride and the "me" generation as challenges departments face trying to recruit millenials.

Looking for answers

One solution departments throughout the country are investing in is creating a cadet program, getting kids interested in firefighting at an early age.

Three years ago, Madison Township Fire Department started its Fire and EMS Explorer programs aimed at providing training and mentoring for local youths. Addison Fire Department started its program a few months ago.

The program's goal is to provide hands-on firefighter training for middle and high school age students with the goal of encouraging them to become career or paid-on-call firefighters in adulthood.

"I'm a product of an explorer program," Rank said. "I was an explorer in the late-'80s and I progressed from that into the career of being a full-time fire chief. I mean, the program does work."

While Madison Township's program has not yet existed long enough to provide its department with recruits, Rank says it has already made a difference within the county. Since the program is open to students from surrounding areas, a few of its older cadets have already applied with the Blissfield Township Fire Department.

The program is split into two divisions. The "Explorer Post" is tailored for those in high school to age 20. The "Explorer Club" is geared towards middle school children, who can start as early as fifth grade and graduate into the "post" upon reaching eighth grade.

"The problem is it takes dedication and staff" even if you're already a busy department, Rank, whose department handles over 2,500 calls a year, said. Yet, he and Lt. Adam Massingill, the program's lead adviser and a former explorer, believe that the payoff three to five years down the road will be worth the effort.

"We meet about once a month and we give them some guidance," Massingill said. "We have a training day when we bring them in and we go through a different (firefighting skill) just like we do with the fire department. We go through victim rescue, ladders and firefighting," for example.

"We've had the luxury of being able to do some controlled fire situations with them," Rank said. "We burn a barn down and we allow them to go out there, paired with firefighters, but we let them actually get on the hose lines and spray."

Already, the program has 18 participants and Rank and Massingill are confident that it will continue to grow.

In Addison, Stites got involved in firefighting when her friend in school recommended that they join an explorer program at the Somerset Fire Department in Hillsdale County.

"I checked it out and then we started doing a lot of trainings and I fell in love with it," Stites said. Now, she enjoys being an adviser for her department's program.

Similarly, the NVFC runs its own fire service cadet corps called the National Junior Firefighter Program. According to the organization's website, the program is run in Lenawee County out of the Hudson Fire Department.

But with the average age of firefighters now over 40 in the U.S., more direct recruiting efforts are needed.

In 2014, the NVFC received a $2.4 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The council used the grant to kick-start a national recruiting campaign called "Make Me a Firefighter."

"A lot of departments are so stretched for time and resources, they don't really have time to focus on recruitment even when they need more people," Quiros said. "So what we did is we created a campaign that local departments can now come in and use. It's all ready for them. It has all the materials. They just have to put in their department information and get these resources out to their community."

Quiros said that a survey conducted by her organization indicated that there are untapped populations that would be willing to volunteer, if cultivated by their local departments. Specifically, she refers to minority populations and women.

"We found that these groups had at least the same level, if not more, interest in volunteering than the white male population," Quiros said. "Women were just as interested in volunteering and minority groups were more interested."

Quiros said that the biggest challenge appears to be a lack of awareness among those populations.

"We also found in that survey that people, as a whole, weren't really aware if their department was volunteer, and even if they knew that it was, they didn't know that they needed more volunteers," she said. "So that's another hurdle for anybody recruiting, is to make sure that (people) know that there's volunteers and that more are needed."

According to Quiros, if things continue unchanged, departments are going to have to take a stand.

"At some point, the fire department has to say, 'We are stretched to the limit. We don't have the resources,' " Quiros said. "And they really do have to evaluate what services to offer. Because if they don't have enough people, if they don't have enough resources or funding, perhaps they aren't able to continue to expand."


©2016 The Daily Telegram, Adrian, Mich.

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