Volunteer Firefighters Continue to Decrease


Published: September 13, 2018

In the United States, the number of volunteer firefighters have continued to decrease since the early 1980’s. It wasn’t uncommon for a department to have a long waiting list, requiring someone to retire before you could join as a volunteer. Now and days, volunteer fire departments are responding to more calls with fewer volunteers. Volunteer departments continue to become increasingly short staffed, yet the need of the public continues to rise. As volunteer fire departments dwindle in size, many have been asked to do more with less. Additionally, as the district grows with residents and buildings, it creates more work, more alarms and a greater need.

The challenge in recruiting new volunteer firefighters is quite simply the difficulty locating people who are willing to take the time to get the certification it takes to be a firefighter today. Federal standards created to enact safety for firefighters have inadvertently created barriers for volunteer services as it now takes hundreds of hours to become certified. Additionally, the cost of training often falls onto the new firefighter. It’s understandable that training requirements continue to increase as firefighters are being asked to do more. Putting water on fire used to be the job description but that is not the description anymore as other emergency needs are becoming more prominent. Terrorist attacks and improvised explosive devices, malfunctioning solar panels and wind turbines, ethanol and natural gas fires, and electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicle accidents are just some of the emergencies firefighters respond to and for which specialized training is needed.

Nearly a quarter of departments have a mix of career and volunteer firefighters which can be off-putting to new volunteers working alongside people who are getting paid for doing the same job. Especially in rural regions, there isn’t a large enough tax base to be able to afford to pay firefighters which is a major reason volunteers are vital to the community. In these areas with understaffed volunteer departments, it is not uncommon to have longer response times, ten plus minutes, whereas in cities with paid firefighters, the response times can be three minutes. This is ultimately a decision the taxpaying community that must decide on the level of service they want.

Despite the pride that comes with being a volunteer firefighter, many states have determined benefits should be granted. Many departments offer property tax abatements, income tax credits and death benefits if they die in the line of duty. Most states allow volunteer departments to provide workers’ compensation, often through state-run programs. Benefits are important to compensate volunteers for their time, but also to show that the community values their service. To learn more about volunteering in your area, contact your local fire department.

The number of fire-related calls for both paid and volunteer firefighters has dropped by more than 3.6 million since 1986. In 2012, only 5 percent of calls were for actual fires. However, the number of responses has jumped by 167 percent largely because medical responses have gone up by 15.2 million.


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