Volunteer Fire Service Faces Many Challenges, but the NVFC is Here to Help

A recent article from The Voice of America takes a look at the challenges fire departments face in recruiting and retaining volunteers. Although volunteers currently make up 70 percent of the fire service, the numbers have been down in recent years and may continue to decline if the challenges are not met.

One of the factors addressed in the article is the aging of the volunteer fire service. With less young people volunteering, many departments worry about having enough volunteers as the current generation begins to retire. The National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC) National Junior Firefighter Program helps departments address this challenge by establishing or expanding youth programs.

Junior firefighter programs allow youth to learn about the fire service in a safe and educational way while also training them to become firefighters and/or EMTs when they are adults. This is a great recruitment tool for many departments, and even those junior firefighters who do not pursue firefighting learn valuable life skills and may become strong supporters of their local department in the future.

Another challenge noted in the article is the ever-increasing demands being placed on personnel. Not only do firefighters and EMTs train for and respond to emergencies, they are also often required to do non-operational tasks such as fundraising, administration, maintenance, public education, and more. For volunteers with limited time, these extra responsibilities may be the deciding factor to leave the department. The NVFC administers the Fire Corps program to take the burden off of the first responders and increase community involvement.

Fire Corps is a locally-implemented program that brings community members into the department to assist with the non-operational tasks. Many people may want to help their local department but don’t necessarily want to be a firefighter or EMT. By enabling these citizens to participate in a non-emergency role, departments can expand their capacity, form deeper connections with community volunteers, and allow responders to focus on operational functions.

Some volunteers use their training to ultimately become career firefighters. These firefighters may wish to continue volunteering for their local volunteer department in their off-duty time. However, the article indicates firefighter unions put pressure on their members to not volunteer, causing many career firefighters to give up their volunteer positions. This is a situation that is being closely monitored by the NVFC’s Volunteer Advocacy Committee, who provides a webpage that two-hatters can use to report any anti-volunteer bias they face from their union or employer. Some states, such as Michigan and Connecticut, have passed legislation protecting the rights of career firefighters to volunteer during their off-duty hours.

A challenge that is often overlooked by many fire departments when considering how to enhance retention initiatives is the emotional toll that firefighting and responding to emergencies has on personnel. As stated in the article, “It’s not just the time commitment that’s a challenge; the heavy life-and-death responsibility also weighs heavily.”

The NVFC focuses on the behavioral health concerns of the fire service through the Share the Load program. This support program helps departments take steps to address the behavioral health issues their personnel may be facing, such as PTSD, stress, depression, addiction, relationship challenges, and more. As part of the program, the NVFC partnered with American Addiction Centers to launch the Fire/EMS Helpline, a free, confidential, 24/7 hotline that firefighters, EMTs, and their family members can call any time for assistance dealing with behavioral health issues. Other components of the program include a guide for keeping family relationships strong, a newsletter full of proactive measures departments can take to address behavioral health, a poster promoting the helpline, a guide for preventing suicide in the emergency services, online courses dealing with topics ranging from stress management to suicide prevention, and an online resource center.

The article concludes that departments should start incorporating new approaches to help recruit and retain volunteers. The NVFC was recently awarded a SAFER grant from FEMA to develop and implement a nationwide recruitment and retention campaign. Through this new program, the NVFC will develop resources, tools, and customizable outreach materials to assist local departments in recruiting and retaining personnel. The program is currently in the research phase; stay tuned in 2015 for more information. Additional recruitment and retention resources are available on the NVFC web site.

America has relied on volunteers since its very beginnings, and by addressing the challenges head on and embracing new perspective and creativity, we will continue to have a thriving volunteer fire service long into the future. Utilize all of the resources the NVFC has to offer to help your department grow and thrive.