We must take a stand for volunteers – our essential workers – to ease financial burdens
The public and elected officials need to better understand the impact of inflation and rising gas prices on volunteer firefighters
Every firefighter is feeling the effects of inflation, especially from gasoline prices, as we go to and from our home and the fire station where we work and train. But while I work for a paid department, many of our volunteer firefighters are facing considerable pains at the pump to fill their personal vehicles, plus pinches from the rising costs of myriad other products and services.
By the numbers
According to the NFPA report, there are approximately 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, and volunteers make up approximately 70% of the fire service, though this group has seen a decline in numbers over the years.
Here in my home state of Ohio, there were 1,280 fire departments 20 years ago. Today there are 1,134, primarily due to consolidations or mergers into joint fire districts. Of that number, over 80% are listed as volunteer – roughly 900 of the departments certified through the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Before I checked the recent U.S. Fire Administration’s statistics, I would have suspected that Ohio would have been in the top 10 of states with the highest percentage of volunteer departments. To my surprise, Ohio was not even in the top 25. States with over 90% volunteer departments include Delaware (98%) Minnesota, Pennsylvania, both South and North Dakota, Nebraska, New York and West Virginia.
During the pandemic, many people who were able to work from home picked up and moved to more rural areas. This migration has impacted many rural communities, and while we have yet to see a detailed analysis of the 2020 census, that data, to be released a few years from now, will likely confirm a greater strain on volunteer fire departments in smaller communities, not only in the number of calls but also in the expectations of these new residents who are used to city-speed responses. Add to this the issues of recruitment and retention of new personnel to volunteer, and we can begin to see this situation with growing concern.
While career (or mostly career) departments cover 68% of the country’s population, volunteer departments cover most of the physical area of the country. Therein lies one problem: Many city-dwellers mistakenly think that all fire stations in the country have the same response as their neighborhood station a few blocks away. That is certainly not the case in more rural and some suburban areas – and this reality has only become clearer over the past couple years.
For example, most urban and many suburban areas have staffed fire stations roughly 2.5 miles apart. Response times may vary, but we strive arrive on the scene within 5 minutes or less 80% or more of the time. Some community members, especially those who are new to a rural environment, may not realize that volunteers responding from home or work may still be on their way to station at the 5-minute mark, and then have to travel to the emergency scene in the appropriate fire or EMS apparatus. It’s a letdown when a citizen’s first words are “What took you so long?” failing to acknowledge the effort expended to get there – not to mention the miles piling up on the vehicles.
Gas prices: A lesson from the past
During my days as a volunteer, I was served as a firefighter in Ohio, then Nebraska, then back to Ohio. In all of these instances, the fire station was approximately 2.5 miles from my residence. That meant that every response or training that I made put 5 miles on my car. While cars may get better gas mileage today, two, three or more trips to the station – in some case daily – could quickly add up to quite a monetary outlay when the average national price for gasoline is over $5, and in some of the states listed as predominately volunteer, gasoline is well over $6 per gallon.
I hear the discussion of gas prices from members of my department at a career department and can’t imagine what it must be like for the typical volunteer and their family. Further, I can only imagine the disincentive that this increase in gasoline prices creates for the recruitment and retention of volunteers.
As I have discussed in previous columns, my family has been in the fire service for generations and faced a lot of national turmoil, perhaps none so serious as the rationing, including gasoline, that occurred during the World War II. Every car had a sticker that indicated its allotment of gasoline based on the car’s purpose, from essential service to pleasure use.
Most firefighters’ cars had a designation that identified the need for firefighters to travel to and from their station assignment. Where possible, firefighters and police officers were also given free public transportation when in uniform to travel, for example, to and from their stations.
If the current gasoline crisis becomes worse, consideration needs to be given to the “essential workers” we have heralded so often during the COVID pandemic. Included in that essential worker category must be our volunteer firefighters who not only give of their time, but currently give out of their own pockets to serve their communities and their neighbors in need.
Take a stand for volunteers
The situation today for volunteers is critical, and with the continued influx of populations into more remote or rural areas of the country, it will only get worse before it gets better. It is time for our national fire service organizations to take a stronger stand at the local, state and federal levels, and realize that needs of the fire service, especially those of volunteers, are more an integral part of Homeland Security than any time since 9/11.
Federal funding is inadequate for the needs of the fire service in general, but for volunteers in particular, it should now become an essential lifeline. Some states have begun using a portion of their American Rescue Plan funds for recruitment and retention of essential workers, including firefighters. In reviewing part of this process for our department, I realized that the degree of difficulty of the application probably hampered the completion of many applications from volunteer fire departments.
It is unfortunate the application process wasn’t more streamlined, with a portion of the funds set aside to make it easier for volunteer departments to apply. This was probably because both our elected and appointed officials haven’t fully acknowledged the importance of the volunteer firefighter who gives of themselves to protect such a massive area of the country. Most likely, they’ve just forgotten this most essential cog in the wheel.
It is time for fire service leaders to take the plight of the fire service, especially that of volunteers, directly to the public. Nothing less would appear to make a lasting impression on our elected officials at all levels of government. Otherwise, volunteer fire departments, an American institution that dates back further than our country itself, will no longer be able to effectively function.