Friday, December 09, 2016

Rural fire departments struggle to fill aging ranks, deploy new recruiting strategies for volunteers

Russel Prince volunteered for 50 years
in Winside, Neb. (World-Herald photo)
Small-town and rural fire departments are short on volunteers and struggling to keep the ranks full. Populations in most small towns are aging, "and that’s reflected in those who serve some of the most important public safety chores: fighting fires and answering rescue calls, from highway accidents to heart attacks and slips and falls," reports Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald.

Nationally, about 31 percent of firefighters in towns under 2,500 in population are 50 or older, and probably older the the smallest towns, officials told Hammel. The average age in most rural counties is rising. "About half of Nebraska’s 93 counties had median ages of 45 and above in 2010, compared with only two counties in 2000," Hammel reports.
Officials told Hammel that demands of children, school and family make it difficult to persuade young people to volunteer, and population decline makes it harder to find volunteers. “The fact is we have an aging workforce and we don’t have that rush into the fire service,”  Michael Dwyer, secretary-treasurer of the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association, told Hammel.

Small-town departments in Nebraska and Iowa have used several strategies to help fill the ranks, such as recruiting high-school-age "cadets" as helpers and reimbursing training costs and paying a small stipend to answer calls, Hammel reports. "As an incentive to volunteer, the Nebraska Legislature passed a law this year granting a $250-a-year income-tax credit for those who volunteer for fire and ambulance services. In Iowa, a similar law went into effect in 2013."

The main example in Hammel's story is Winside Fire and Rescue, in a town of 427 with 34 volunteers, and former member Russel Prince, 79, one of five volunteer firefighters in Nebraska honored this year for 50 years of service. "He quit taking rescue calls three decades ago due to the time-consuming training required and, because of his age, cut back his role on fire calls in recent years mostly to driving pumper trucks and helping with equipment," Hammel reports.

“I told them if they needed help to holler,” said Prince, who retired in October after staying a few months to reach the 50-year milestone. Prince told Hammel he remembers when volunteers wore raincoats to fires, not the fire-protective bunker gear now used. He recalls when the Winside department got its first ambulance in 1974 -- a federal surplus 1964 Ford station wagon.

"The numbers of volunteer firefighters in both Nebraska and Iowa have slowly dwindled over recent decades, and with rural populations projected to continue to fall, it’s prompting concern," Hammel reports. "In Nebraska, an estimated 12,000 volunteers answer fire and rescue calls over 72 percent of the state, from suburbs like Gretna and Waverly to rural areas like Winside."

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