Thursday, December 07, 2017

Volunteer firefighters are a critical first line of defense, but new membership keeps dwindling

As a record year for wildfires draws to a close, with the Los Angeles area battling three large new fires right now, editor Burt Rutherford of Beef magazine worries about the future of rural firefighting. Most rural areas are protected by volunteer firefighters, but it may be tough to keep recruiting them if wildfires continue to be a major challenge in years to come.

Rutherford writes in a blog post about an interesting conversation he had after speaking at the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's annual convention last week. Wes Morgan, the manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District in Baker City, told Rutherford he was also the chief of the Powder River Rural Fire Protection District, a volunteer fire department that provides fire and EMS services to "a fair chunk of ranchland in Eastern Oregon." Morgan told Rutherford he was having a hard time recruiting younger members of the community to volunteer for the fire department, and worried about having enough people on hand to respond to a disaster.

"Volunteer fire departments are the first responders in any kind of fire, whether it’s a wildfire on private land or your barn burning down," Rutherford writes. "Wes told me that volunteer firefighters have to go through the same training as firefighters who do it for a living, and it’s getting harder and harder to find people willing to invest the time and energy to be a volunteer."

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the vast majority of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers serving in small communities; of an estimated 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. in 2014, 788,250 (69 percent) were active volunteer firefighters. And though 70 percent of career firefighters serve communities of 25,000 or more, 95 percent of volunteer firefighters serve communities of fewer than 25,000 people, and more than half of those serve communities of fewer than 2,500.

But though the number of calls to fire departments has increased by 166 percent since the mid-1980s, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has declined by 12 percent, according to a report by the National Volunteer Fire Council. Some of the reasons for the decline cited by the report include:
  • Economic realities: Economic conditions make it more necessary than ever for families to have more than one income. This is especially true in rural communities that have lost businesses and jobs. Many who would volunteer must instead work long hours or multiple jobs. Employers, also squeezed financially, are less tolerant of employees taking time off to volunteer.
  • Training requirements: The days of on-the-job firefighting training are long gone. Volunteers must meet stringent qualification standards and federal requirements. At the same time, the public expects a broad range of response services (emergency medical, hazmat, technical rescue, etc.) from their fire departments, each of which requires extensive additional training.
  • Increasing call volume: False alarms (due in part to the propagation of automatic alarm systems) and the public’s increased reliance on (and sometimes abuse of) response services, especially emergency medical services, mean that volunteer responders are busier than ever, and often overwhelmed.
  • Sociological changes: Even in many rural communities, community coherence and pride are waning, and volunteerism is less valued. Younger people are seeking education and employment away from home and are less focused on community involvement.

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