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Volunteer Fire Departments Are Struggling to Retain Firefighters, While 911 Calls Are Surging

The search for solutions as volunteer firefighter recruitment sputters and 911 calls soar.

Every year an average of 10 volunteer firefighters quit the West Barnstable, Mass., Fire Department, about 27 percent of the department’s total. Fire Chief Joseph Maruca never finds out why half of those department members leave, but does know that about one-third of his crew leaves for career firefighting positions at larger, nearby fire departments, typically after serving in West Barnstable fewer than four years.

West Barnstable, with its white clapboard church and saltbox houses on the shores of Cape Cod Bay, is a classic New England village with a population of 3,500, popular with retirees.

Constantly recruiting new firefighters is a strain on the department, and on Maruca. The situation got bad enough that officials looked into staffing the department only with career firefighters. Maruca found that not only would that cost taxpayers more, it would also reduce the number of firefighters responding to each call.

Nationwide, volunteer fire departments save municipalities, and taxpayers, $139.8 billion per year in firefighting costs, according to a 2014 report from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). About 70 percent of America’s firefighters are volunteers, and 85 percent of the nation’s fire departments are all or mostly volunteer, according to NFPA. The smallest communities — those with fewer than 10,000 residents — are almost always served by volunteer departments, also, according to NFPA.

Across the country, small, rural fire departments like West Barnstable’s are struggling to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. But even where the number of volunteer firefighters is holding steady, the number of calls is exploding. The nationwide tally of the calls departments respond to each year has tripled in the last 30 years, according to NFPA. These numbers influence a community’s ability to deal with emergencies, both large and small.

“Career and volunteer firefighter and emergency services are the infantry in every community when disaster strikes,” said Denis Onieal, acting U.S. Fire Administrator. “There is no force at the state level or at the federal level, with the exception of the National Guard, that can provide a community with rescue, mitigation and recovery services like the fire and emergency services community.”

Communities like West Barnstable illustrate why some departments are struggling to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. “Small towns like ours are losing our young adult populations,” Maruca said. They are moving to where there are more jobs and a lower cost of living.

Unfortunately, though, the cities these young people move to don’t necessarily see the benefit of more, young volunteers, says Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC). “People who are transplants to new areas may not have that community tie that makes them want to volunteer with the fire department. And people may not even be aware that their community needs volunteers.”

Volunteer fire departments once depended on local employers who offered full-time jobs with benefits to their volunteers and were willing to have employees leave work to fight fires. Today a typical job is as a per-hour worker with unpredictable shifts for a national or international company with no ties to community. The nation’s top employer is Walmart. Second on the list: McDonald’s, according to stock market information analyzed by 24/7 Wall St. and reported in USA Today.

According to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the nonprofit group Young Invincibles, reported in USA Today, millennials (born from 1982 to 2004) earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at the same age, and millennials have more student loan debt.

Because the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has declined 15 percent between its all-time high in 1984 and its all-time low in 2011 and, because over that same period, the number of calls has increased nearly 300 percent, existing firefighters are suffering from burnout. (Most of that increase is in medical calls, Quiros said.)

Fighting fires as a volunteer requires the same training career firefighters receive. The training requires a significant time investment. “Even as people have less time to volunteer, the training required to volunteer has become more intensive, taking more time,” Quiros said.

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Training is not the only burden that volunteers carry along with career firefighters. Certain cancers, sudden cardiac death and trauma-induced mental health issues are additional health burdens carried by all firefighters. Insurance coverage for these health issues varies by state and fire department.

Last October, the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial included, for the first time, the names of 24 firefighters who died of cancer on its plaque honoring those who died in the line of duty the previous year, The Washington Post reported. It was an acknowledgment of a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that found that certain types of cancer — not limited to lung cancer — are linked to firefighting. (New York state recognizes 23 types.)

After 9/11, national attention was drawn to the cancer risk after the untimely deaths of rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero. But the risk is shared by everyone who spends time in or around burning buildings, and may have increased over the decades. “Buildings and furniture are more toxic now,” Quiros said.

Cancer risks can be reduced by wearing personal protective equipment, especially self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), not only during the fire, but also during cleanup, said Quiros. Gear should be cleaned right away. Soot-smudged gear is a badge of honor in some departments, but it is also a cancer hazard. Dirty gear should never be brought home.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse are other long-overlooked health risks of firefighting. Nearly 100 firefighters commit suicide each year, Quiros said. That’s more than die annually in the line of duty, she says. The NVFC’s Share the Load Program provides a 24-hour hotline answered by firefighters who are trained counselors who can direct callers to additional resources for dealing with addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD and other issues.

Since the early 1990s, about half of all firefighters who die in the line of duty died of sudden cardiac death. This is likely because — with the heat, the climbing, the heavy gear and smoke exposure — fighting fires puts much more stress on the heart than is experienced by the average person, Quiros said.

“The fire department saved my life,” said Kevin D. Quinn, wringing out every ounce of paradox from that statement, as a volunteer firefighter for 41 years and current chair of NVFC. Well aware of the heart health risks for firefighters, Quinn never smoked, didn’t drink, ate well and does 22 push-ups a day as a reminder of the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day. He had frequent check-ups, and had never been diagnosed with a heart condition.

When a fire chief in North Carolina invited him to raise awareness of special physical exams for firefighters by visiting the North Carolina department and having an exam along with the fire crew, Quinn resisted at first. He travels a lot in his position, but eventually he relented and joined the department for the exam. Afterward, he was told he had a serious heart condition. A second opinion back home led to surgery.

Three months after the surgery, Quinn was back on duty for his fire department. He waited that long because it was a requirement of his commercial driver’s license. He wasn’t aware of feeling unwell, but now he feels better than he has in years.

Quinn recommends that every firefighter get a physical that complies with the NFPA 1582 standard. This is much more specific to the health risks faced by firefighters than a typical well-patient checkup.

What can fire departments and communities do to recruit more firefighters? Some departments have had success with programs created by NVFC.

Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View (SBM) Fire Department in Minnesota, which serves 45 square miles and 80,000 residents, was doing a great job with its fire prevention program, said Shannon Ryder, division chief. Fire calls are way down. The number of department members in this mixed career-volunteer department was holding steady, she says, but the heavy schedule of fire prevention programs was wearing its firefighters down.

When she heard about NVFC’s Fire Corps program about 10 years ago, Ryder was skeptical. The nationwide program began in 2004 to engage community volunteers to help their fire departments in non-emergency roles, including fundraising, cleaning equipment and trucks, bookkeeping and other paperwork, and education programs.

“When it came across my desk in 2008,” Ryder said, “I wondered who in the world would sign up to help with all this random stuff for nothing but a T-shirt?” Still, it seemed like just the help her department needed, so she gave it a try. Not only did people sign up, they stayed. The SBM Fire Department will soon have 21 Fire Corps members who have been with the department for 10 years.

Fire Corps members can get to work with very little training. Because a fire department invests less in each Fire Corps member, it doesn’t need as big of a commitment from them in return. Less strength is required, so elderly or disabled people easily find a role. But Fire Corps members can participate in additional training to help their fire departments in all sorts of ways, from driving a truck to serving as a first responder.

Fire Corps is a partner program under the Citizen Corps initiative and is funded through FEMA. That makes it a companion to the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, and the two complement each other. While CERT provides operational or emergency support during times of disaster, Fire Corps provides non-operational support every day.

Ryder says that many of the Fire Corps members in her department are also CERT volunteers. She thinks participating in Fire Corps keeps them involved in helping the community in a way being a CERT member alone can’t.

“Not everybody wants to ride the big, red truck,” said Ryder, who now believes in the program so fully that she is the Fire Corps state coordinator for Minnesota. “There are more people who want to give back to the community than you would think.”

For Maruca, the solution to his recruiting problem is an NVFC program called Make Me a Firefighter and a lot of effort. Make Me a Firefighter provides marketing materials that Maruca can adapt to his own needs. His first effort was advertisements on Facebook that targeted users in his region by age. (Because of state law, firefighters in Massachusetts need to be between 18 and 65 years old.)

The ad provided a link to the Make Me a Firefighter national website, where potential recruits can search for fire departments in their area. Quiros said that more than 25 percent of departments nationwide have signed up to be in the program’s database.

When Maruca received emails generated by the national database, he replied immediately, asking the potential recruits to stop by and learn more about the department. Then, once a week, simply because the response was so overwhelming, he sent out a welcome email to all the new contacts that included an application. If he didn’t hear back, he would email again a month later, with another invitation and application.

One of the things he most appreciates about the program is that the people who responded were a more diverse group than he sees through traditional word-of-mouth recruiting. “If your fire service is made up of community members, it reflects the community,” Maruca said. That can mean increasing a department’s racial or ethnic diversity, but it also means loosening the grip of the clique of families that seem to fill every small-town fire department. And that may be more difficult.

In his town, Maruca sees women as his biggest untapped pool of recruits. Women make up half of almost every community, he says, yet they are only 10 percent of his recruits. Departments across the country have similar numbers. “No matter where you are in the country, this is your biggest area for growth,” he said.

Through the program and the Facebook ads, the department received 62 inquiries. Ten of those people applied, Maruca said. That was more recruits than he had spaces to fill in the next training class, so some recruits are waiting to attend the next.

It’s a hopeful sign, Maruca said, but the new normal is constant attention to recruiting and more flexibility in assigning deployments. “It’s a very dynamic process to keep us functioning.”

All of these challenges don’t mean that emergency managers should give up on using their traditional infantry of volunteer firefighters, Quiros said. A stronger volunteer fire department means a stronger community response to just about any emergency. Instead, she suggests, emergency managers should advocate for their fire department as they would for any true partner in their mission. When volunteer firefighters have the resources they need, she said, the whole community benefits.