By Author(s): Staff 
Published Monday, March 1, 2010
| From the March 2010  Issue of FireRescue 
For the first time since the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) began tracking the age of firefighters by community size in 1987, the majority of firefighters protecting communities of fewer than 2,500 are 40 years of age or older. In 1987, more than 63 percent of firefighters protecting communities of 2,500 or less were under the age of 40. There are slightly more than 400,000 firefighters (out of 1.15 million total) protecting communities with populations of 2,500 or less, including 399,000 volunteer firefighters.
“For years, volunteer fire departments across the country have been reporting that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain new members,” says National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg. “Given what we have been hearing from our members, this report is disheartening but not at all surprising.”
There are a variety of reasons that younger people aren’t joining volunteer fire departments in the same numbers as in the past. Many young people leave rural areas for better employment opportunities in more densely populated areas. Those who remain in small communities are often forced to commute long distances to and from work, reducing the free time that they have available to commit to the volunteer fire service. Perhaps most significantly, more stringent training requirements in recent decades have dramatically increased the initial time commitment for new volunteer firefighter recruits.
“Increased training standards make firefighters more effective at their job and ultimately reduce losses of life and property from fire,” said NVFC Health and Safety Committee Chairman Kenn Fontenot. “At the same time, we have to be realistic about how we structure training delivery—how it is funded, where and when it is offered and attitudes toward training—to ensure that volunteer fire departments aren’t forced to choose between adequate staffing levels and adequate training.”
In recent years, many communities have begun incentive programs to improve recruitment and retention efforts, providing modest benefits to volunteer personnel in the form of stipends, pay-per-call and training, length of service award programs (pension-like programs), and non-monetary benefits ranging from awards banquets to gym memberships. The NVFC supports several federal bills that would make it easier for local communities to provide recruitment and retention benefits, including the following: The Volunteer Emergency Services Recruitment and Retention Act (H.R. 1792), The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act (H.R. 3666) and The Fire Grants Reauthorization Act (H.R. 3791). (For more information about these bills, visit www.nvfc.org .)
In addition to working on federal legislation, the NVFC operates several national programs designed to increase the capacity of fire departments. The Fire Corps program assists departments in the recruitment and retention of non-operational volunteers, who perform various fire department tasks and functions, allowing firefighters to focus on emergency response. The National Junior Firefighter Program helps volunteer departments engage young people who can potentially become active firefighters when they reach the required age.
“We need creative solutions to recruit and retain the next generation of volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel,” Stittleburg said. “The world that we live in is changing and if we don’t adapt to meet new challenges, fire protection in thousands of communities across the country will suffer for it. Hopefully, reaching this unfortunate milestone will serve as a wake-up call for fire service leaders and elected officials across the country about the importance of re-doubling efforts to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters.”
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