When the National Fire Protection Association released its latest figures on the number of firefighters in the United States last October, an alarm went off in the volunteer sector. That's because the number of volunteer firefighters was at its lowest since 1991.
This is cause for concern, but just how much concern? National Volunteer Fire Council Chairman Philip Stittleburg is quick to channel author Mark Twain when he said that reports of the volunteer fire service's death are greatly exaggerated. Stittleburg, who also is long-time chief of the LaFarge (Wis.) Volunteer Fire Department, does however caution that if this trend continues, the volunteer service will reach a crisis state.
The NFPA data covers 1986 to 2010. And while the 2010 numbers are the lowest in 19 years, the years 1989, 1990 and 1991 all showed less volunteer firefighters than did 2010. Table 1 shows the number of career and volunteer firefighters for the last 10 years. (For the full NFPA report, visit http://tinyurl.com/3fm9gtj/.)
|TABLE 1: Number of Firefighters for the Past 10 Years|
|Source: National Fire Protection Association: U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2010. NFPA has kept career, volunteer and department statistics since 1983; 2010 is the most current data available.|
Another figure that jumps out of the report concerns the number of firefighters per 1,000 residents they protect. For both career and volunteer, 2010 marks the lowest rate since NFPA began collecting data in 1986.
To put these results in perspective, it is important to understand how NFPA gathers this data. For communities with populations less than 50,000, the survey is sent to a sample that is stratified by the size of the community; projections are then based on weighted samples. About one-third of the states are surveyed each year on a three-year rolling schedule. The association said that about 19% of surveyed departments respond.
Although the NFPA study does not breakdown its results by region, in some areas, such as Texas, the number of volunteers is steadily rising. This, said Chris Barron, executive director of the Texas State Fireman's and Fire Marshal's Association, is likely due in part to formal recruiting efforts and the unprecedented wildland fire season that the state experienced last year. His association used federal grant money to kick off a statewide recruitment and retention program. Part of that program calls for departments to submit exact membership numbers every six months. Since the first grant in 2008, Texas has seen a steady increase in its volunteers.
Though Stittleburg admits that the NFPA numbers may not have the exactness of a full-blown census, he is confident that they accurately reflect trends in volunteer membership. And for volunteer or combination chiefs who are seeing their numbers slip, it doesn't matter much if the NFPA survey is on a three-year rolling cycle or not. They need to know why those numbers are dropping and what to do to right the ship.
"This isn't demonstrable in any statistical evidence, but I think we are seeing the aging of the volunteer fire service," Stittleburg said. "People are retiring and we are failing to bring in younger people to fill those spots. The average age of volunteer firefighters is increasing — that much we know."
Stittleburg believes that recruiting efforts need to be aimed at those in their teens and 20s. "In the past we've recruited by word of mouth. That doesn't seem to be getting it done anymore," he said. "We've got to be getting into the schools and saying this is something that you will really enjoy and it is a good thing for your community."
In South Carolina, Shane Ray is seeing a drop in volunteers. Ray is the superintendent of the South Carolina Fire Academy, where he is responsible for all of the state's fire training. Ray also is the international representative on the International Association of Fire Chief's Volunteer & Combination Officers Section; is the former chief of the Pleasant View (Tenn.) Volunteer Fire Department; and is the former director of public fire protection for the National Fire Sprinkler Association. South Carolina is running pilot programs for firefighting and EMS training for high school students at six vocational training facilities across the state.
It is important, according to Ray, to offer young recruits vocational training, because most need to see some personal benefit. Older recruits, in their 30s, 40s and even 50s, typically come to volunteer fire departments out of a deep-seated duty to serve their community. This is not something he often sees in the young recruits, he said.