Are volunteer firefighters a dying breed?

Long gone are the days when fathers, brothers and sons were part of the same volunteer fire departments. It was a long standing tradition for families to serve their communities for nothing else than the pride of helping their neighbors out. In the past 30 years, the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States has dropped by around 11 percent.

In the same period, the number of career firefighters has grown by 50 percent.  We recently sat down with Kenneth Hawkings, a career firefighter from Delaware County, Pennsylvania for a short interview. According to Kenneth, in PA alone, volunteer firefighters have dropped from 350,000 in the 70s to under 70,000 in 2016.

The reason, he explains, is the rise in two-income households and reduction of time available for people to volunteer with the fire service. While their free time is shrinking, time demands on volunteer firefighters are growing. Volunteers are required to have the exact same training as career firefighters, all of which is done in their own time. Also, non-fire related activities, such as attending medical calls and fundraising to keep the station running, have increased.

Of course this doesn’t exactly help to attract volunteers who don’t aspire to become career firefighters.Many stations are aching to recruit and retain members. In the US, only 24% of the 1.13 million firefighters are under the age of 29 years (AKA millennials), meaning the vast majority of american firefighters are Gen X or older. Millennials are, by definition, digitally native, dynamic and strive for a healthy work-life balance. These traits can be harnessed by the volunteer system in order to allow stations to adjust and take what they can get from young volunteers who don’t have aspirations to become career firefighters.

While in many cases, counties choose to throw money and career firefighters at the problem, fire stations across the US should be looking for a way to boost the volunteer system; an endeavor which requires adapting to changing times.[Tweet "The modern volunteer system must understand that firefighters don't have as much time to give."]The decline in recruitment and retainment translates in just a handful of people responding to every call. No matter how big or small the volunteer corps is in the station, calls are going to keep coming in.

Responding to every call ends up burning out attending members, who can’t go many nights without much sleep.Having volunteers who can only give one or two nights a week can be a very valuable addition to any station that’s struggling with lack of resources. However, structural change needs to be done in order to make things work this way.

Boosting the volunteer system will require flexibility to understand that young firefighters might not have as much time to give. Ensuring the station’s availability in this scenario can be a complex challenge, since stations can’t ask for strict shifts (due to the dynamic nature of millennial volunteers’ schedules), but also can’t risk taking the pumps off the run due to lack of personnel available to respond. Implementing flexible planning can provide some relief. This, however, brings along the complexity of keeping track of which members are available and when, and to keep an eye on crewing levels to ensure there are enough people on duty to be able to respond to calls.

The answer to the question of if and when volunteers are going to be able to attend incidents can be provided by flexible scheduling software. By allowing volunteer firefighters to proactively plan their own schedules and continuously monitor the station’s availability, Fire Departments can take a new bold step towards volunteer recruitment by appealing to younger generations.

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