Of the nearly 1.2 million firefighters in the United States, more than 800,000 are volunteers.
And without the services provided by volunteers, a number of small communities with small budgets might have to do without a fire department.
But attracting volunteers has become a challenge in recent years.
“People don’t have as much time to volunteer at organizations anymore,” said Brian Causey, the assistant chief at the Guil-Rand Fire Department in Archdale. “People are spending more time with their families, they’re working more. The more rural areas, they depended a lot on the farmers, people who are around in the daytime and can run to the fire station for a call.”
Guil-Rand is one of 15 departments in North Carolina taking part in a campaign sponsored by the N.C. Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Fire Chiefs to try to attract more recruits.
Campaign participants will take part in workshops on retention, and collect economic data and demographic information to better tailor recruitment efforts for their communities. As part of the campaign, the fire departments will also receive some new marketing materials.
The National Volunteer Fire Council says 19,762 of the nation’s nearly 30,000 fire departments are entirely staffed by volunteers. By using volunteers, communities throughout the country save an estimated $47 billion a year.
“It simply isn’t feasible economically for many small and rural communities to change over to a career format for their fire departments,” Kimberly Quiros, the chief of communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council said. “These communities have always had these volunteer systems, and just don’t have the tax base to do otherwise.”
Nationally, the number of volunteer firefighters was slightly higher in 2016 (the latest year for which the National Volunteer Fire Council has figures) than it was 30 years before — about 815,000 compared to 808,000 in 1986. But the amount of calls those firefighters deal with has nearly tripled over those 30 years.
The Guil-Rand Fire Department, which serves about 90 square miles, has about 60 personnel, roughly half of whom are volunteer.
The number of paid personnel in the department has gone up as the number of volunteers has fallen. And the number of calls is continuing to increase.
“Our volunteer resources are aging out,” Causey said. “And you can get people to come in, but the hard part is retaining those folks. Everybody sees a need, and goes, ‘Oh yeah, I want to help out.’ But then when they come and realize the dedication that it takes, the training that it takes, we lose them.”
Becoming a certified firefighter in North Carolina requires roughly 200 hours of training, Causey said. Firefighters then have to undergo 36 hours of training annually. In the past, Causey said, some employers might have given people time to do that training, as well as the volunteering. Nowadays, not so much.
At the Gumtree Volunteer Fire Department in Forsyth County, which is also taking part in the campaign, fire Capt. Daniel Henderson said the biggest challenge is finding people who can spare the time to help.
“People don’t want to have to worry about doing anything once they get off work, especially if they’ve got a family,” Henderson said. “And there’s not a lot of people who can volunteer for something like this in the daytime.”
Though both Guil-Rand and Gumtree are trying to do more advertising in their recruitment efforts, many people who volunteer got interested through word of mouth or because they had connections to the firefighting community.
Arch Hamilton, who works in insurance and risk management, has been volunteering for Guil-Rand since 2006. He said his father was a volunteer firefighter, and his mother’s family also had ties to what used to be the Deep River Fire Department in High Point.
At 46, he is among the youngest of a core group of volunteers at the department. The younger people who volunteer often do so with the hopes of getting enough experience to secure a paid position at Guil-Rand or another department. But the department is glad to have them, even if only for a few years. And even though the time commitment is tough, Hamilton said he cherishes the opportunity.
“I show up for work in a dress shirt, but then go and jump on a firetruck,” he said. “You also have a chance to help someone in a desperate situation, whether they have a house fire or are trapped in a car. You can make a difference instantly in someone’s worst moments. It’s exciting, too. I won’t downplay that. You get to play with these big firetrucks.”