SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — What if your home in a rural South Dakota was on fire and nobody was there to put it out?
It’s an extreme scenario but there are continued concerns about the ability for volunteer fire departments to recruit and retain members.
An August report revealed that half of the current volunteers surveyed said they’ve considered leaving the fire service at some point. The National Volunteer Firefighter Council did a survey of 922 volunteers and 108 former volunteer firefighters and published its findings in August.
Two-thirds of the current and former volunteers said that their departments had problems with retention.
More than 1,000 fire departments in South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota rely on volunteers to fight fires, respond to serious crashes and handle other incidents.
As volunteers leave or retire, it has been getting more difficult for many rural fire departments to replace them.
“Across the state it’s a challenge in getting individuals in that 25 to 40 age range,” said Charlie Kludt, the president of the South Dakota Firefighters Association and member of the Viborg Fire Department.
“It is becoming more difficult than it was in the past more so because there is a lot more family activity time, kids are involved…,” he said.
Potential volunteers in the 25 to 40 age range are busier with that increased family and activity time and don’t have as much time to devote to a volunteer organization like a fire department, Kludt said.
Thirty-seven percent of the volunteers who responded to the NVFC survey said lack of support and flexibility in juggling community volunteer responsibilities with life responsibilities were reasons people left or considering leaving volunteer fire departments.
The environment of the fire department including a lack of camaraderie, no social interaction between members outside of fire calls and training and lack of relationships between younger and older members were cited as separate reasons firefighters may leave or considering leaving.
Kludt said the environment has changed over the years. It was more common several years ago for firefighters to sit and talk after a fire call, fire training or meetings, he said. But work demands and family and personal demands mean firefighters don’t hang around to socialize after a call, training or monthly meeting, he said.
After several years of declining numbers, the number of volunteer firefighters increased to 745,000 in 2018, according to firefighter profile from 2018 released in February by the National Fire Protection Association. That was a 9% increase from 2017 but was similar an increase of
9 percent from the previous year, but similar to the 2016 number.
Kludt said the number of volunteers in 2020 is closer to 700,000 after being at about 800,000 15 years ago.
Residents are joining local volunteer fire departments at the rate lower than they did in the late 1980s and mid-1990s.
While Kludt knows South Dakota’s story well, he also serves on the National Volunteer Fire Council.
South Dakota’s story is one that can be shared around the country, he said.
True, said Nick Riley, the president of the Iowa Firefighters Association (IFA).
“Yes,” Riley said firmly when asked if recruiting and retention of volunteer firefighters was a concern in Iowa.
“The current situation, I wouldn’t say we are in dire straits, but it’s definitely getting harder and harder to find new recruits,” Riley said.
As he listened to concerns from fire associations across the nation, Riley reached a conclusion as to one major reason why it’s getting more difficult to get those volunteers.
“Honestly, and I hate to say it… but there is a consensus that a lot of people now are looking for that instant gratification…,” Riley said. Being a volunteer firefighter doesn’t offer an immediate reward or gratification, he said.
Riley also agreed with Klutdt that demands on time are another reason people may not volunteer or decide leave a volunteer fire department.
What’s the loss mean?
The downturn in recruitment and retention means volunteer firefighters are aging.
The average age of a South Dakota firefighter in 2016 was 47, according to the SDFA. Kludt said the average age hasn’t change much since 2016.
Volunteer firefighters may carry up to 75 to 90 pounds of weight when the respond to a fire, Kludt said. The extra weight includes the turnout gear, an airpack and any piece of equipment.
As a firefighter ages, it can get more difficult to carry the extra weight into a building to fight a fire.
Small towns under 5,000 have the most firefighters 50 and older, according to the NVFC.
South Dakota has more than 250 towns with estimate populations under 5,000.
As numbers decline that means there may be fewer people to fight a fire or respond to another emergency in rural towns.
Departments could have three to four people show up for a dayside incident and as many as 20 for a night time incident, Kludt said.
Riley said some volunteer departments in Iowa have merged with other nearby small departments.
“I see the good and bad in that,” Riley said. “The good is that, towns still have fire protection, but the bad is, it’s killing response times.”
Response time is important for fires and emergency incidents in a town but those volunteers also provide protection outside the town.
“If there is an (incident at) an ethanol plant. Those towns around it will respond immediately,” Riley said.
The land around small towns can also include large dairy or other large livestock operations, feed mills and large elevators.
Fire departments are also responding to an increasing number of calls. The NFPA said fire departments in the U.S. responded to 36,746,500 in 2018 which was about 2,000 more than in 2017 and about 8,000 more than in 2010. Much of the increase if for medical calls at about 23.5 million but about 1.3 million.
Combatting the risk of loss, lack of recruits
The IFA is pushing for the establishment of a statewide fund that would allow volunteer firefighters to contribute their $100 tax credit to the fund. Their account in that fund could grow with that annual tax credit and any other contributions, Riley said.
Cities and fire departments could contribute to the fund, Riley said. He compared it to a college savings fund.
Kludt believes there is untapped potential with immigrants in rural areas.
“In southeast corner where I’m from we have several large dairy operations. A lot of immigrants come to work in those,” Kludt said.
“From a fire and ambulance perspective, we need to be capitalizing on that,” Kludt said.
Departments can recruit those immigrants as volunteer firefighters, Kludt said. They’d be in traditional roles on the fire department but they could also be a resource when translators are need at a fire call, Kludt said.
A 2007 report from the U.S. Fire Administration said volunteer fire departments needed to look at recruiting females, Hispanics and immigrants to volunteer.
To combat the factors of lack of camaraderie, exclusion and similar, Kludt said the Viborg fire department is intentional about socializing after meetings and calls.
“We try to take the time to sit around and chat…,” Kludt said. They could talk about fire related topics and/or thing happening around town, he said. Those talks are a way for firefighters to get to know each other.
What’s a volunteer fire department like?
The public may tend to think of volunteer fire departments as only being in small towns of a several thousand people or less.
In 2018, 64%, or 19,122, of all fire departments were made up of volunteer firefighters, according to the NFPA.
An East Coast volunteer fire department can operate entirely different than one in the Upper Midwest, Kuldt said.
“A volunteer department on the East Coast can almost run like a full-time department,” Kludt said. The departments have volunteers for shifts on a 24 hour basis, he said.
In Iowa, a volunteer fire department in town with a population of 8,000, for example, would likely have a full-time chief and an assistant chief, Riley said. “The rest would be volunteers,” he said.
South Dakota has 337 fire departments and 324 of them are all volunteers departments, according to the SDFA.
Kludt said the state has only five paid only departments in Aberdeen, Watertown, Mitchell, Rapid City and Sioux Falls.
Even the state capitol city of Pierre has a combination volunteer and career department, Kludt said. The only other state capitol with such a department is Dover, Delaware, Kludt said.
Iowa’s volunteer departments range in size from towns with population such as 300 to about 8,000, Riley said.
East Coast or West Coast or the midwest, volunteer departments still rely on many local residents to keep them in operation.