Fewer volunteers down at the local firehouse

Washington, Mo. - As a young boy, Lloyd Trentmann remembers watching his volunteer fireman father respond to an alarm the old-fashioned way - by racing out of a downtown firehouse and pushing a hosecart by hand through the hilly streets of this old Missouri River town.

Standing next to a quarter-million-dollar pumper truck, the 50-year volunteer firefighting veteran runs a hand over his brush cut and says, "Everything is different now - the equipment, the training, even the attitude of the kids. They don't necessarily want to do this anymore."

Small-town fire stations across America, which have long relied on volunteers to operate the trucks, are witnessing a steep decline in recruits. With today's volunteers facing more emergency calls and lengthier training requirements - and with Americans working longer hours than ever before - few are finding the time to fight fires on the side. As a result, an already graying volunteer force is being strained to the breaking point.

"We're very concerned about the trend," says Heather Schafer, executive director of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).

"Not only are the ranks of volunteers thinning, but the demands on firefighters are much greater. They get a lot more calls," she adds.

The overall effectiveness of fire protection in the United States is closely linked to the vitality of the volunteer force. Of the more than 30,000 fire departments in the country, more than 22,000 are all-volunteer, while fewer than 2,000 are manned completely by careerists.

Yet nationwide, the total number of volunteer firefighters has declined by more than 10 percent since the 1980s, according to the NVFC. Even here in Washington, where the all-volunteer force was first organized in 1852 and is rated as one of the best in the state, the roster stands at 83, while a full complement of manpower would be 120.

More calls, but less time

Washington fire chief Bill Halmich says his department made 697 runs in 1999, compared with 300 to 400 per year in the early 1990s, and fewer than 100 in the 1960s. The extra calls are not necessarily welcomed by the full-time employers of volunteer firefighters.

"If you work down at the local factory, they don't want you running out the door every time somebody smells smoke," says Bill Pritchett, captain of engine house No. 4 in Washington.

Volunteers already facing longer hours in their full-time jobs find the same is true when they show up at the firehouse.

A new level of professionalism has replaced on-the-job training in most stations, meaning lengthy required annual courses on topics ranging from hazardous materials to search and rescue.

"Most people don't know it, but the insurance companies come up with more rules and regulations than the legislators," says Mr. Halmich.

And the amount of time devoted to fund-raising - everything from bingo games to car washes - can also become burdensome. Not surprisingly, many volunteers would rather be spraying a four-inch hose on a house fire than a garden hose on a dirty sedan.

A scarcity of funds is a constant theme in most volunteer firehouses.

According to one story, a group of volunteers called upon to put out a blaze on a farm arrived in a dilapidated fire truck and drove right into the middle of the flames. The fire was quickly separated into two parts that were easily put out, and the exultant farmer rewarded them on the spot with a check for $1,000. "Great," was the volunteer fire chief's grumbled reply. "Now we can get the brakes fixed on that darn truck."

Writing a check - that is, hiring full-time firefighters - is an obvious solution to the volunteer shortage, but often an impractical one. A recent study by the Washington Fire Department found that a full-time force would require a sevenfold increase in budget - a figure that would no doubt light a fire under local taxpayers.

A graying force

Just as worrisome as the decline in the overall number of volunteer firefighters nationwide is the graying of the force.

Some volunteers can be shifted to administrative duties.

For instance a recent winter day found Mr. Trentmann - highly valued as a handyman - examining an antique 30-foot brass pole scavenged from a derelict St. Louis firehouse. Trentmann will oversee the placement of the pole - as long on history as it is tall - in a new station here.

But young volunteers that can do the most dangerous and demanding work remain vital to the health of the force.

Making do - barely

The decline in new recruits has not posed widespread danger to public safety so far, according to Ms. Schafer.

Although anecdotal evidence exists that a lack of manpower may have caused problems at individual fires, departments so far are managing to provide adequate coverage with existing resources, she said.

As of yet, volunteer firefighting - first organized in the United States by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1735 - is hardly in imminent danger of collapse.

Still, many fire departments are now beefing up their recruiting efforts. The town of Washington has been working with the local Boy Scouts Explorer Post, involving kids in nonhazardous duties as early as age 14. Nationwide, the NVFC has established a toll-free hot line to attract recruits as part of a broader program that has spread to 29 states.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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