Ill. cities concerned about dwindling volunteer pool of first responders

Several emergency volunteer agencies are operating with half of the volunteers ideally needed to fully respond to emergency situations in their coverage areas


Samantha McDaniel-Ogletree
Jacksonville Journal-Courier, Ill.

South Jacksonville Volunteer Fire Department’s requirements of residency with the village’s limits has been changed to within 5 miles of the fire station, something firefighters hope will help stop a dwindling number of volunteers.

The village board approved the change Thursday to alter the requirements from within village limits to within five miles of the department.

Several emergency volunteer agencies are operating with half of the volunteers ideally needed to fully respond to emergency situations in their coverage areas, many citing more responsibility among community members for the decreases. (Photo/Chapin Area Rescue Squad)
Several emergency volunteer agencies are operating with half of the volunteers ideally needed to fully respond to emergency situations in their coverage areas, many citing more responsibility among community members for the decreases. (Photo/Chapin Area Rescue Squad)

Fire Chief Richard Evans Jr. said the village has had a residency requirement for its volunteers, but Evans said the department is not seeing the number of volunteers it needs to adequately staff the department.

“We currently have 15 volunteers and we are looking for at least four additional members,” Evans said.

The department can have up to 30 members, but Evans said it has never reached the maximum number.

Evans said the limits of the village did not provide an adequate pool of volunteers, so he is hoping the expanded boundaries will allow for more volunteers.

Unfortunately, the decrease in volunteers is not limited to South Jacksonville.

Several emergency volunteer agencies are operating with half of the volunteers ideally needed to fully respond to emergency situations in their coverage areas, many citing more responsibility among community members for the decreases.

“It”s just a different day and age,” Evans said. “People are more busy in their day-to-day lives,” he said.

In Chapin, the Chapin Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad has roughly half the people it needs to operate efficiently.

Fire Chief Scott Pahlmann said currently daytime calls are almost automatically called out with request for mutual aid because they do not have enough members to respond.

“We are still short on volunteers,” he said. “There are times when I don’t know if we’ll every have enough people.”

To operate during the day, with the help of mutual aid, Pahlmann said they’d need at least five members — they currently have two that are usually able to respond.

During nighttime calls, Pahlmann said they’ll usually have seven to eight volunteers respond to a call, but would ideally need 15 to operate comfortably and provide adequate support for those responding to an emergency situation.

Pahlmann said the responsibilities required by volunteer agencies can sometimes detour volunteers, but said the need is still there.

“We give up a lot of time, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Pahlmann said. “We become like a second family. For me I get a sense of community volunteering for the department.”

Waverly Chief Glen Brown said Waverly currently has seven active EMTs and 15 firefighters. Ideally, the department would have 15 EMTs and 25 to 30 firefighters.

“During the daytime, we hurt just like everybody,” Brown said. “Many of our volunteers work elsewhere, but even at night, we don’t have the volunteers we need. People are busy. At night, people have some many things to do, they just don’t have time to volunteer.”

In Winchester, the fire department is fully staffed with 20 volunteers, but the Winchester EMS has an average of six volunteers that respond to calls, despite having 15 or so on the roster.

Randy Dolen, Winchester EMS president, said the department would be able to fully operate with the number on its roster if everyone was able to respond on a regular basis.

“Ideally, we’d have three to go out on call and three to stay behind in case of another call,” Dolen said.

Evans said the last few years have seen a continued decrease in volunteers.

“We are researching all the time, trying to find what we can do to encourage more people to volunteer,” Evans said.

One step for South Jacksonville is changing the residency requirement.

“I’ve had several people approach me about applying, but they live outside the limits by just a little,” he said. “South Jacksonville doesn’t have a huge population of people to choose from.”

Others are trying to promote their organizations and find ways to help those interested in applying cover the raining expenses.

Pahlmann said he is trying to make Chapin more active on social media, promoting the department and encouraging people to apply.

The department gets most of is volunteers through word of mouth.

“I’m trying to show people more of what we do — not just responding to calls — but the things we do within the community,” Pahlmann said.

Brown said they often try to cover the cost of training for new members with an agreement that they would work with Waverly for at least a year.

The Passavant Area Hospital Foundation is helping 10 agencies with some training expenses to help encourage more volunteers.

Pam Martin, the director of the foundation, said the hospital is giving $10,000 to Alexander, Arenzville, Ashland, Chandlerville, Chapin, Meredosia-Bluffs, Murrayville-Woodson, South Jacksonville, Waverly and Winchester to help cover costs of training for new members.

“This allows people to join at no cost to them,” Martin said. “Our intent is to help EMS agencies add to their roster of volunteers. There is a need to make sure there is coverage for all hours of the day to meet the emergency needs out in the county and small towns.”

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©2019 the Jacksonville Journal-Courier (Jacksonville, Ill.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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