Decline In Volunteerism Dangerous Trend

By: 
TERESA DOWLING
Staff Writer

There is a national trend in fire service and its not headed in the right direction — especially for small and volunteer departments.

According to data released in April by the National Fire Protection Association, the number of volunteer firefighters for 2016 and 2017 — the NFPA’s most recent data points — are the lowest-recorded levels in the survey since it began in 1983. Nationally, volunteer firefighter numbers have dropped from 814,850 to 682,600 — approximately 132,000 — in two years. Most reduction occurred in fire departments protecting communities with populations of 2,500 or fewer.

While numbers for local departments have been relatively stable as far as membership numbers are concerned, those volunteer members are aging and the rigors of a difficult job can take its toll. 

Of the seven Auglaize County departments that responded to questions from The Evening Leader, all but one of them had openings on their rosters. The department with the most openings was St. Marys Township Fire Department with only 27 of its 40 positions filled.

“The number of people applying is going down,” Township Chief Chad Hicks said. “I’m lucky to get two or three applicants a year now where before we had a waiting list to get on."

Aside from the number of members declining, Hicks added that the number of calls his and other departments handle are on the rise. 

For example, the city of St. Marys Fire Department has seen an increase of almost 1,000 calls for service in the past three years. 

“This report should be a wake-up call for everyone who serves in, is protected by or cares about the volunteer fire service,” National Volunteer Fire Council Chair Kevin Quinn said in the NFPA report. “We know many volunteer fire departments are struggling to maintain adequate staffing. However, the scale of the loss of volunteer firefighters estimated in this report is really disturbing and is something that we need to work as a community and a nation to address.”

The sting of low volunteerism is hitting small departments the hardest but that doesn’t mean full-time departments are immune to the loss. 

According to data provided by the St. Marys Fire Department, as recently as 2000, the department maintained an auxiliary department that was made up of 10 of a possible 15 volunteers. Since 2014, that number has been at zero.

“Lack of interest,” Fire Chief Doug Ayers stated as the reason for the decline. “In the five years that I’ve been chief, we’ve only had two phone calls even asking if we have an auxiliary.

While volunteer departments may not have required time on station, they too have seen a lack of interest in volunteering. 

Only one of the responding volunteer department in Auglaize County holds a full capacity with New Bremen filling 31 roster spots. 

Minster is the next highest with 33 out of 36 openings filled and New Knoxville has five positions open before it reaches capacity at 25 members. 

Cridersville has seven openings and Buckland Volunteer Fire Department has nine spots available.

In addition to the lower numbers of volunteers signing up for a difficult job, current department members across the county — and the nation — are aging.

“While we do have 21 members on our department, over half of them have over 10 years of experience,” Buckland Fire Chief Aaron Vorhees said. “I see within the next five years, over half of my current members will likely retire out.”

With impending retirements, not only will membership decline further, but experience also walks out the door.

“We don’t see the same calls all the time so hopefully our older members have seen a similar call and can give some advice based on their experience,” Hicks added. 

The NFPA reports that 32% of volunteers are over the age of 50 and 41.6% of firefighters have 10 or more years of experience guiding them. Locally, 19.1% of firefighters are over 50 but 55.9% have more than 10 years of experience.

“There are hours that the public does not see; they only see us on the runs, they don’t see the endless hours of training and maintenance required by this job,” Hicks said. “It can wear on you after that long and without new people to take the place of the older guys, we can start to run into trouble.”

“We all need each other because we have manpower issues everywhere,” added Ayers. “We provide EMS for a large portion of this side of the county and we have fire assistance from New Knoxville, Buckland and St. Marys Township because we need their manpower. It’s a two-way street, we help them and they help us.

“Whether you’re a volunteer or a full-time firefighter, you’re all on the same team. When you’re on the scene or you’re on the job, we’re all the same — volunteer or full-time — we’re all firemen and we’re all doing the same job.”

And coming together is an important aspect of covering a rural county such as Auglaize.

“Without younger people willing to volunteer and try out the fire service, there will be a time where your call may go unanswered,” Hicks said. “Because there’s not enough funding to support a lot of full-time agencies, the rural areas need volunteers to answer those calls."

Below is contact information for chiefs from their respected fire departments. 

Buckland Fire Department: Chief Aaron Vorhees — bvfd@ohio link.net

Cridersville Fire Department: Chief Rick Miller — cvillefd@bright.net

Minster Fire Department: Chief Rich Prenger — mfdchief@nktelco.net

New Bremen Fire Department: Chief Dan Voress — firechief@new bremen.com

New Knoxville Fire Department: Chief Jerry Merges — chief@nkfire.net

St. Marys Fire Department: Chief Doug Ayers — dayers@cityof stmarys.net

St. Marys Township Fire Department: Chief Chad Hicks — chief@stmarys townshipfd.com

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