|Russel Prince volunteered for 50 years|
in Winside, Neb. (World-Herald photo)
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.
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."
“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."