Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories looking at the struggles facing volunteer fire departments.
WARSAW — They fight fires, assist at vehicle accidents, administer first aid and provide reinforcement in extreme weather situations and natural disasters.
They carry heavy pieces of equipment, break down doors and walls, crawl through blistering hot, smoke-filled rooms, respond to medical calls, perform vehicle extrication and rescue victims from burning buildings and other emergency situations.
They do these things because they choose to — not because they are required to — and they do it for virtually no pay. These people are volunteer firefighters — and communities in many rural areas need more of them.
They respond to fires and accidents on weekends and holidays. They miss out on sleep, family time, their children’s school and sporting events, holiday dinners and much more.
They are called out in the middle of the night to go fight fires after which they go home, shower and head off to their full-time jobs on little to no sleep.
Yes, that’s right — the majority of volunteer firefighters work 40 plus hours a week at a full-time job in addition to their volunteer firefighting duties.
How many of us would repeatedly risk our lives for essentially no money and little compensation? Volunteer firefighters do this all the time.
Unfortunately, many fire departments across the United States are experiencing a shortage of volunteer firefighters.
Last year, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released its 2017 U.S. Fire Department Profile report showing the number of volunteer firefighter numbers for 2016 and 2017 are the lowest recorded levels since the group began the survey in 1983.
The critical shortage is causing serious issues for some departments, as they struggle to get by with a smaller staff. The lack of volunteers reduces the efficiency of a department when responding to an emergency situation.
“They really cannot fully staff a fire department anywhere without volunteers at this point,” said Burket Fire Chief Kevin McSherry.
Property taxes could be affected if the volunteer shortage results in cities and towns being forced to hire additional full-time firefighters.
The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates that volunteer firefighters save communities throughout the United States more than $128 billion per year.
There doesn’t appear to be one specific reason for the decline in volunteer firefighters, although longer work commutes, lengthy and intensive training requirements and the need for dual incomes, resulting in less free time may all be contributors.
“I think it’s just a change in the mentality of our citizens,” McSherry said, pointing out that in the past there was a stronger sense of community.
“Some people don’t even know who their neighbors are and some don’t care,” McSherry said. “I used to know every person in this town and I’m afraid I don’t anymore.”
Moreover, there is not one specific solution.
“I don’t have the solution,” McSherry said. “My dad was a volunteer firefighter and I thought it was neat when I was a boy. I joined when I was 20.”
Some communities are turning to the establishment of fire territories in an effort to combine resources. In Kosciusko County, officials in Pierceton and North Webster are both looking into the idea.
Junior firefighter programs are another way many departments are attempting to recruit members.
Several states are considering online training rather than the traditional classroom setting for the textbook portion of fire classes, allowing more flexibility for the student.
Many fire stations are focusing on making stronger connections within their communities in order to “market” their fire station and bring awareness to the need for volunteers.
In an effort to entice more people to join Indiana fire departments, Ivy Tech Community College is offering free tuition for a pilot funding program that will run the next two academic years (2020-2021 and 2021-2022).
Editor’s note: Part two of this series, which includes comments from county firefighters regarding why they chose to become volunteer firefighters, will be posted Friday.