Volunteer Firefighters Are Getting Older and Enrollment Is Shrinking, Posing a Risk to Americans

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About two-thirds (65%) of the country’s firefighters are volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). However, in recent years, the number of young volunteers has been decreasing, and with current volunteers aging, it could have severe implications on civilian safety — especially in rural areas where the local department may be the only access to medical attention for miles.

In 2020, the number of volunteers reached a new 35-year-low, meanwhile, call volume more than tripled in the same time frame.

With fewer volunteers, individuals in crisis may end up “waiting 45 minutes for a fire truck to show up when their house is on fire,” said Steve Hirsch, head of the National Volunteer Fire Council, per NPR.

“People have to understand that if they don’t go out and volunteer, that could happen,” he added.

There’s also the growing issue of current volunteers aging out faster than youth coming on board. In 2020, 34% of volunteers in small communities were over 50, according to the NFPA, outnumbering those under 30 (22%). In 1987, just 15.9% of volunteers in small communities were over 50, while those under 30 were 29.7%.

“In our line of work, cardiac events are always a major issue, and the older you get, the more likely you’re going to have a cardiac event,” Hirsch told NPR. “That affects the crew’s safety, affects the public’s safety, and our ability to respond.”

The NFPA points to a number of factors contributing to the overall decline in volunteers such as time commitments, inability to afford housing near a local department, and “less of an emphasis on the social aspect of volunteering.”

Also, volunteers aren’t typically paid, however, some fire departments may reimburse for expenses related to the role, pay them a nominal fee, or offer benefits. The time commitments and training also vary by state and location, but it can be anywhere from a few hours a month to weekly meetings, in addition to being on-call in case of an emergency.

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“In today’s society, people simply don’t have a lot of disposable time,” said Bob Duval, a regional director at NFPA who heads a volunteer department in a small town in Connecticut, in a company report. “So it’s become hard to get and keep people when you’re honest with them when you say if you want to fight fires, you’re going to have to do this training and it may take six months or a year.”

However, there still are some youngsters stepping up to the plate.

Ben Shrader, 20, told NPR he decided to volunteer at his local fire department in Darlington, Maryland after his father fell into cardiac arrest and was unable to be revived by the time officials arrived on the scene.

“When it was his time it was his time,” Shrader told the outlet. “I spent a little while not knowing really what to do, until one day I said ‘screw it, I want to do something with my life.'”

For others, like 18-year-old Sam Santelli (who also volunteers at the Darlington department), the structure keeps him “out of trouble.”

“Being here keeps you straight and in line,” he told NPR.

Related: We Offer Time Off to Volunteer as a Unique Perk — But It’s Also Good for Business

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