Soaring costs, declining ranks major challenges of volunteer companies
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The future of volunteer firefighting appears bleak, with dwindling ranks and soaring costs. Today the Sun-Gazette begins a three-day series on the volunteer fire service.)
When the first volunteer fire department opened in Lycoming County in the 1800s, no one could have envisioned the evolution of the institution to what it is now in the 21st century.
The costs of equipment to fight fires and outfit firefighters has grown astronomically — a fully equipped ladder truck can cost up to a half a million dollars.
And today’s fire departments face problems other than the cost of equipment and gear — a growing scarcity of volunteers. What good is an expensive truck if there’s no one to drive it, or a well-equipped ambulance with no one with the proper training to staff it?
Traditionally if a member of your family, such as your father or grandfather, was a firefighter, it was assumed you would join the ranks when you came of age. Today that is not the case.
Volunteers for all sectors are at a premium. Youth sports teams, civic organizations and volunteer fire departments are struggling to find men and women to staff their ranks.
One reason might be that fire departments are missing the mark when it comes to messaging the younger generation, according to John Yingling, director of public safety for Lycoming County.
“No. 1 is, are we getting the message out to them? Are we trying to use ways, for us over 40, which attracted us or were effective for us to recruit the younger generation?” he said.
“When I joined there was a family history of joining the fire department,” he continued. “Family public service was more of a tradition.”
Now, though, social media and electronic devices take up much of the millennial generation’s leisure time, he said.
“Getting the message out for the need for volunteers using the appropriate media is big,” Yingling said.
“There have been changes. The sense of community has changed and how to reinvigorate that sense of community, volunteering and giving back to your community,” he added.
Some fire companies have used social media to get the message out to a younger pool of volunteers.
Once a fire department has volunteers inside the door, there’s a question of how to keep them, he said.
“You just sent me to an EMT course, approximately $1,000, a course of about two years,” he said, painting a common scenario. “I got my firefighter I certification, probably another thousand dollars. You probably spent $8,000 equipping me in protective gear, so you just made a $10,000 investment in me and I’m appreciative. What are you doing to retain me?”
One solution he offered is recognizing and accommodating flexible schedules and the talents of volunteers.
“Some of it comes down to, are you gonna let me say that I want to have just eight hours a week at call duty? Don’t expect me at every call. Don’t talk to me in a condescending manner or punish me for not being at every call,” he said.
“I have found working with those under the age of 30, they need constant feedback,” he said, “and maybe that’s what we need to look at — giving them the feedback, the constant feedback.”
Yingling joked that in dealing with those under 20 he would like to say there’s no app for firefighting: “Somebody’s got to go do it.”
Many fire companies have welcomed junior firefighters, but now there are limitations due to child labor laws and safety issues. Departments get 14-year-olds involved mainly in training and cleanup, Yingling said.
“Firefighting is dangerous business,” he said. “You have them, now the problem is there are certain things I can train them to do and there are certain things they have to wait until they’re 18 to do just due to the inherent risk and danger of the business.”
When they do turn 18 and graduate from high school, another problem is whether they go to college, enter the military or stay in the area, he said.
“You never know how long they’re going to stay active in the area, but if you have them for two to four years you have someone to contribute to the overall organization,” he said.
So, reaching out with the importance of community, reaching them with the right tools and giving them the feedback they need and expect helps get volunteers in the door, but the expense of maintaining them is another issue facing these volunteer organizations.