Volunteer Shortage

We need to be honest with ourselves
and the public

(Unsplash/Thomas Park photo)

By Jeffrey M. Rheaume

More than 10 years ago, I posted my strong feelings and opinion on a popular local fire service blog that if the fire service didn’t get a handle on the looming staffing shortage crisis, politicians and citizens alike would end up determining our future fate. Fast forward 10 years, and there are ominous signs that this is unfortunately becoming true. In fact, the National Volunteer Fire Council wrote in an April 2019 article about the National Fire Protection Association’s U.S. Fire Department Profile Report, “The volunteer firefighter numbers for 2016 and 2017 are the lowest recorded levels since the NFPA began the survey in 1983.”

The fire service staffing shortage has been widely documented on social media, television, radio, print media and just about everywhere else, directly in public view. An April 2019 article in Governing magazine revealed, “The number of volunteer firefighters has declined from 300,000 in the 1970s to 38,000 in 2018, according to the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute.” North Carolina noted a 22% decline in volunteers in the past two years alone, according to FEMA.[1] While some municipalities and states have been transparent about staffing shortfalls, some have not, which makes addressing this vital issue much more difficult. It is not uncommon in some growing rural and suburban communities to hear that more than 10 minutes have gone by before a piece of fire apparatus even signs on the air in response to an emergency incident. In the town of Preston, Connecticut, the local fire chief reported that in 2018 his chief’s vehicle was the only unit to respond on 43 occasions.[2]

Several issues, including delays in dispatching the fire department in Sea Isle, New Jersey, recently made the news, putting a local (and not so local) spotlight on issues that many modern day fire departments face. An October 7, 2019, article in The Press of Atlantic City reported, “The records kept by the city can make the fire department’s performance difficult to assess.” It went on to say, “A review of the documents show officials never reported the commanding officer on scene. The reports also listed call times, dispatch times and arrival times as happening simultaneously.” Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the Division of Fire Safety, said that they “encourage that more attention be paid to the data going into the incident reports.”[3] I’d like to think that we as professionals would all agree with this assessment. How can we begin to educate the community and our elected officials if we either don’t have data or we lack accurate data? How can we improve our field and our service to the public if we can’t even be honest with ourselves? The obvious answer is that we can’t.

When recently talking to a local elected official about the lack of adequate fire service staffing, he explained that there are no “best practices” for the fire department in his honest opinion. Although we as the so-called experts can point to NFPA 1710 and 1720, how many departments are truly using this as a benchmark or measuring stick? How many agencies are even coming close to meeting these standards? Local leaders have greatly varied views about what their fire departments should look like. Those views are further clouded by what so-called fire department “leaders” are telling them. Some chiefs flatly refuse to acknowledge the problem, while others, like the Preston, Connecticut, chief, use hard data to substantiate pleas for political and community support. In fact, the Preston chief was successful in clearly communicating the problem and eventually received budgetary support. A local news article stated “Fire Chief Tom Casey breathed a sigh of relief when he heard Tuesday’s referendum results that approved the 2019-20 town government budget that includes his plan to ensure that Preston has enough paid firefighters/EMTs to respond to emergency calls around the clock.”

The public has always trusted us to be reliable and community focused, but how are these attributes determined and then measured? The Hartford (CT) Fire Department (HFD), in conjunction with the Center for Public Safety Excellence, convened Community-Driven Strategic Planning sessions to determine critical issues, service gaps, and strategic initiatives. While there is too much information from the session to share here, the roots of the process ensured that all stakeholders had input regarding the alignment of the HFD’s organizational mission, values, and vision as well as goals for improvement. Simply stated, they took a direct look within themselves with honesty and transparency. The process and subsequent planning document now provide a clear roadmap for the next five years, which will benefit the department; the city; and, most importantly, the customers.

Some fire departments like the Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department and even much smaller organizations like the Harrisonburg (VA) Fire Department provide some form of online customer survey. Harrisonburg even informs survey respondents, “Although we always appreciate positive feedback, we are equally interested in hearing how we can improve. The survey is voluntary and anonymous. Space is provided to share your contact information if you would like a member of the Department to follow up with you on your comments. Our goal is to respond within 24-48 hours.” As a chief, it is equally beneficial to be armed with positive and negative feedback from members of the community.[4] This feedback should be used to illustrate to political leaders the areas of strength of the department while bringing attention and focus to areas in need of improvement. This is just one way to gain additional qualitative information in an efficient manner.

Many of us cringe at the thought of additional mandates; however, we should be fighting for mandates that will bring more accurate incident reporting to our profession. Many states already mandate some form of incident reporting, but there are often no consequences for failing to report. In Connecticut alone, 25 departments failed to report according to the state portal for the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). This is contradictory to Connecticut General Statute Sec. 29-303, which requires all departments to transmit NFIRS data quarterly. Departments should not be permitted to receive state or federal grants if they are unwilling to contribute critical fire service data. The CT Web site correctly indicates, “The NFIRS data provides fire information at the local, state and national levels, and assists fire service agencies and public officials in identifying fire-related problems and trends.” Isn’t the lack of adequate fire department staffing a trend? Staffing is just one data set that needs more accurate capture.

In addition to requiring the first unit’s on scene time, data should be captured that paints a clearer picture of conditions and resources on arrival. The first-arriving engine and truck companies’ on scene times should also be mandated, along with staffing levels. We’ve all read about, experienced, and fully understand that putting the first line into operation is one of the most critical things we do at a fire scene. This information is essential to developing data that will show real trends related to response times and the effectiveness of crews. Another data requirement should capture the time when we apply water to the fire. The popularity of the term, “We have water on the fire,” seems to be growing in some places, but widespread use of this term or a similar phrase would provide some correlation between on scene times and when the first line is actually in operation. If a unit is on the scene of a one-story ranch and the on-scene time and “water on the fire” times are upward of more than a few minutes, something is seriously wrong and likely warrants attention. A thorough after-action review can identify delays and shortfalls. Keep in mind, if we aren’t critical about ourselves, no one will be until there’s a loss of civilian lives, a catastrophic fire, or even a line-of-duty death.

The fire service is very effective at identifying hindrances as they relate to responding to emergencies such as heavy traffic, closed streets, weather, hoarding conditions, down power lines, long driveways, lack of hydrants, and the list goes on. However, we are much less likely to point the finger at ourselves when, in fact, we ourselves cause a delay in the effective mitigation of an emergency.

We are the first to point out to the public that fires burn hotter, burn more rapidly than ever, and can cause cancer to firefighters who are working on the scene. We are some of the first to tell the public that early CPR and defibrillation will save a life. We are the ones who tell the public to install smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and sprinkler systems to help save lives. Why then aren’t we more vocal about telling the very same people that a delay in helping them is becoming more and more likely in many places? In some cases, we are talking about a delay large enough to result in significant consequences in terms of outcome. Maybe it’s pride, tradition, ignorance, stubbornness, or a flat-out refusal to explain the obvious, but we can go nowhere until we are honest with ourselves first. One fire department was recently polled during a fire department study and reported that it only had TWO remaining certified firefighters who are not officers. The report continued and stated that many of the officer positions are not filled. But unfortunately, the same department (and many like it) continue to just hang a banner over the bay doors, hoping that someone will stop in and fill out an application. It just isn’t happening.

National Volunteer Fire Council statistics show that fire department call volume has tripled over the past 20 years, while the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States “reached a low in 2019.” While additional demands are being placed on fire departments, such as increased calls for service, more rigorous training requirements, and an ever evolving multihazard response approach, the volunteers who are left are aging. Members ages 50 and up are significantly higher in all community sizes when compared to 1987. 

So, where do we go from here? Maybe you’ve heard this answer before: “It depends.” Until we’ve asked ourselves and those we protect what to expect, we will go nowhere. Until we are brutally honest with ourselves about job performance, until we police ourselves, and until we take great steps to truthfully evaluate our own efforts, we can’t even begin to solve our issues. Fire Chief Andrew Baxter of the Charlottesville (VA) Fire Department told Governing magazine, “People are looking to the fire service for leadership and partnership for all aspects of emergency response.”[5] I couldn’t agree more. Our military bases, industrial facilities, large defense contractors, and many of our urban centers are almost always protected by adequate fire protection based on fire safety codes, insurance requirements, consensus standards, previous large historical fire losses, or good old-fashioned common sense. As sprawl impacts what used to be rural and suburban communities, the fire service must rise to the occasion in these areas as well. These citizens also deserve and expect our best efforts, and they deserve adequate protection. NFPA statistics show that in 2018, 363,000 home structure fires (which includes one- and two-family homes and apartments) caused 2,720 civilian deaths, an increase of 3% from 2017. This includes 2,360 deaths (65% of the total number of civilian deaths) in one- and two-family homes and 360 in apartments or other multi-family housing, including condominiums. Seventy-four percent of civilian fire deaths resulted from home fires. More frightening is this: “Given a fire serious enough to report to the fire department, the risk of dying in that fire has not decreased significantly over the past 40 years.”[6] Why aren’t we doing more to protect human life? One answer is that the public simply doesn’t know we aren’t doing enough. Why wait until a catastrophic event occurs to bring these issues to light? It makes more sense to fix these issues now and avoid unnecessary injury or loss of life. 

Lightweight building construction, modern fire behavior, newer interior finishes, and evolving heat release rates are just a few things that impact our profession in a negative manner. However, we do have some element of control over the strength of our response staffing–that is, if we choose to take control and make positive strides to improve on it. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released the results of a study focused on how crew sizes and arrival times influence saving lives and property. An excerpt concluded, “The report is the first to quantify the effects of crew sizes and arrival times on the fire service’s lifesaving and firefighting operations for residential fires. Until now, little scientific data have been available. The results from this rigorous scientific study on the most common and deadly fires in the country–those in single-family residences–provide quantitative data to fire chiefs and public officials responsible for determining safe staffing levels, station locations and appropriate funding for community and firefighter safety,” said NIST’s Jason Averill, one of the study’s principal investigators.

The following was taken from an article written by Lexipol’s Lori Moore-Merrell. “In today’s ever-changing economy, local government decision-makers often alter emergency response resources faster than fire service leaders can evaluate the potential impact. These whirlwind decisions can leave a community without enough resources to respond to emergency calls safely, efficiently and effectively. The effects of uninformed decision-making can have an even greater impact on vulnerable populations including the elderly, young children and people with disabilities.”[7] It is imperative that firefighters and fire department leaders, as well as political decision makers, understand how fire department response and performance times affect their local community. The right data is key to building that understanding. To reiterate, what are we doing to be forthright with our political leaders and citizens? Are we using the evidence right before our eyes to strengthen our argument that we not only need better staffing, but that better staffing would lead to better response times?

Unfortunately, it is easy to become fixated on our role regarding only fires; however, a more robust firefighting force also lends itself to a stronger all-hazards response force. Fire-based EMS, hazardous materials incidents, motor vehicle crashes, and other fire department responses all inherently benefit by better crew staffing. In fact, fire-based EMS can benefit the fire department in terms of revenue. For example, the New London (CT) Fire Department staffs two basic life support transport ambulances. When the firefighters assigned to these units are not on medical emergencies, they are an integral part of fire suppression forces. Firefighter/EMTs typically provide truck company support and conduct searches, ventilation, overhaul, and a myriad of other fireground tasks as needed. And while this model is not usually a profit making one (usually a break even annually), the public benefits by average ambulance response times under five minutes and by the dual role that these members provide. Fire-based EMS is just one source of revenue. We aren’t supposed to be about profit; we are supposed to be about making a difference when it comes to saving life and property.

Many departments have turned to SAFER grants to strengthen staffing. Communities diligent enough to forecast the need for more staffing in the future have opted to apply now for federal staffing grants, which offset the cost of hiring new firefighters. For example, a community that recognizes it is already short staffed but hasn’t planned for the future can apply today for funds that will more readily obtainable to cover new positions. If a community hasn’t planned, it is likely to take years to build the support needed to receive budget increases to cover new positions. This offers departments the opportunity to delay the direct impact of absorbing new salaries. There may be other less financially impactful ways of addressing the ongoing staffing shortage. The towns of Guilford and Branford, Connecticut, are just two examples. In the past few years, both departments were able to add eight new firefighters each through SAFER. In a local news article, Guilford Assistant Chief Mike Shove said with the new hires he can put two more people on per shift, which would help reduce the emergency response time to the northern part of town. Chief Shove went on to say, “The national average and recommendation is having an ambulance arrive on scene in less than eight minutes. That is our goal.”[8] Guilford also used SAFER to add eight firefighters in 2008. Both departments provide fire-based EMS transport services and leverage that revenue to provide more adequate staffing.

Some departments and cities/towns have turned to consolidation. In 2016, three Pennsylvania volunteer fire departments merged into one agency. In what seems like eons ago, North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire and Rescue (NHRFR) was formed in 1998. The NHRFR Web site proudly boasts, “Covering the North Hudson towns of Guttenberg, North Bergen, Union City, Weehawken and West New York, North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue takes pride in maintaining one of the best response times in the nation. Before regionalization, the area was served by five small fire departments, each with their own management structure, maintenance program and administrative staff. Now, all those responsibilities have been streamlined and consolidated into one efficient, cost-effective operation. North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue meets or surpasses the fire-safety guidelines recommended by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The number of firefighters responding to first alarms has increased, and North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue takes pride in continuing to maintain one of the best response times in the country.”

On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the villages of Centerville, Osterville, and Marstons Mills are protected by one unified fire district. Departments large and small within the United States have lent truth to the adage “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” when it comes to improving firefighting practices and improving service to the public. These efforts have resulted in better outcomes for the effectiveness of emergency personnel and the safety of the public.

Another potential source of improved staffing includes the more frequent use of automatic aid. Many departments still seem to hesitate before calling on their neighboring departments for help. Unfortunately, some communities, however, rely on mutual aid too often because of shortfalls with staffing. In Middletown, Rhode Island, the community is speaking out. During a January 6, 2020, town meeting, residents told the Town Council, “We can get injured, die, lose our home, lose our car if we don’t get the fire assistance we need. We spent millions of dollars on a new fire station and fire trucks, but we don’t have the people to staff them.” Another resident and the director of nursing at a local nursing and rehabilitation center went on the record to say, “The staffing levels in the Middletown Fire Department have not changed in 30 years while the number of emergencies, accidents and other incidents have tripled since then.” Boiani told the council, “As a director of nursing, I can tell you that our response time has become longer and we never know what department is going to show up,” she said.[9] Certainly, the argument could be made that mutual aid should be just that, mutual.

In some places, the use of automatic aid might better provide a two-way street for bordering departments who may both suffer from lower numbers of firefighter turnout. If both departments openly recognize the need for each other’s support, old mutual-aid agreements could be shelved for an automatic-aid agreement that would better suit the public, towns/cities, and firefighters. Likewise, bordering towns could think outside the box and work to hire firefighters who cover both communities, with salaries and benefits shared between the two municipalities. It’s both unfortunate and frustrating that the public can identify serious fire service problems when it’s our job to recognize gaps in service and find ways to properly address them long before they become a widely known public safety liability.

As professionals who are entrusted with the safety of millions of Americans nationwide, we must start honestly evaluating ourselves before people who know nothing about our business try to solve our problems for us. We cannot afford to erode the trust of our citizens by allowing and covering up substandard fire protection and inadequate all-hazards response. I would like to believe that our destiny remains in our hands. Maybe one of our first firefighters said it best. Ben Franklin claimed, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” No community or fire department should allow a single catastrophic event to destroy a reputation that has been decades or even centuries long in the making. Our stellar reputation to this point is literally made up of the blood, sweat, tears, and even the lives of firefighters who have preceded us. It is up to us to remain hold of the public trust.

Jeffrey M. Rheaume is a battalion chief with the New London (CT) Fire Department with 24 years of service. He served two years as a firefighter at the Submarine Base Fire Department in Groton and six years as a volunteer firefighter in Waterford. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology and administration from Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and a bachelor’s degree in liberal and professional studies from Mitchell College in New London.

[1]Shortage of Volunteer Firefighters Threatens Fire Departments’ Existence. Retrieved January 20, 2020, from https://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/gov-volunteer-firefighters-department.html

[2]Preston volunteer emergency responses drop, prompting call for fourth paid firefighter. (2017, April 18). Retrieved January 15, 2020, from https://www.theday.com/article/20170417/NWS01/170419421

[3]Shaw, C. (2019, October 7). Dispatching practices contribute to Sea Isle’s fire problems. Retrieved December 29, 2019, from https://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/news/local/dispatching-practices-contribute-to-sea-isle-s-fire-problems/article_803a51ef-bf8b-5dcb-80e9-51e6a852646d.html

[4]Barnett, M. (n.d.). Harrisonburg Fire Department makes customer service survey digital. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from https://www.whsv.com/content/news/Harrisonburg-fire-department-makes-customer-service-survey-digital-558321901.html

[5](2018, September). Fire Departments Struggle to Meet New Demands. Retrieved January 14, 2020, from https://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/gov-firefighters-firehouse.html

[6]NFPA Journal. (2019, September 1). Retrieved January 5, 2020, from https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-media/NFPA-Journal/2019/September-October-2019/Features/Fire-Loss

[7]Understanding and Measuring Fire Department Response Times. (2019, July 16). Retrieved November 25, 2019, from https://www.lexipol.com/resources/blog/understanding-and-measuring-fire-department-response-times/

[8]Roos, Z. (2017, October 17). Guilford Town Officials Accept SAFER Grant. Retrieved December 5, 2019, from https://www.zip06.com/news/20171017/town-officials-accept-safer-grant

[9]Flynn, S. (2020, January 7). Angry crowd calls for more Middletown firefighters. Retrieved January 15, 2020, from https://www.providencejournal.com/news/20200107/angry-crowd-calls-for-more-middletown-firefighters

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