FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Fire departments across the country are in need of more volunteer firefighters but are having trouble getting people to sign up.
Volunteer firefighters make up nearly 70 percent of firefighters nationwide. In Northeast Indiana, there are a little more than 60 volunteer departments. However, over the past twenty years, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped 13 percent, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
“The need for volunteers is higher than ever at this time, and unfortunately, it’s the hardest time that we’ve ever had to get volunteers on our department,” Robert Boren, the Operations Chief for the Huntertown Fire Department, said.
Some firefighters said it’s not getting people to sign up that’s the problem, it’s retaining them. Boren said there are increased time demands. It now takes a firefighter six to eight months to complete training when in the past, it could only take 24 hours. There are also more stringent training requirements on the state and national level.
“To leave their family behind, for no pay, is huge, and it’s hard to find people like that anymore,” Boren said.
Huntertown currently has seven career firefighters and 52 volunteers. The department saw an increase in recruitment last year, but it is still not at the level they need. Boren said it’s especially difficult to get people to volunteer during the daytime hours. Some companies used to let their employees take off if they got a call, but now, the companies willing to do that are dwindling. The department is also dealing with a rise in call volume. However, if staff remains low, response times could be affected.
“When that structure fire comes in, we have to be there for that person in need and realize that our stuff is still at home waiting for us when we get home, and there’s might not be if nobody shows up,” Brent Veldman, the Board President of the Huntertown Volunteer Firefighters, said.
In order to increase recruitment, Huntertown started getting creative. Firefighters reached out to high schools and started a cadet and junior firefighter program. They also changed bylaws to make it possible for residents outside of Huntertown to join.
Compensation for volunteers vary across districts. In Huntertown, the firefighters do get a small monetary stipend and a few tax breaks.