Where have all the firefighters gone?
CFD one of many departments struggling to find volunteers
Published: Thursday, February 7th, 2013
When Custer Volunteer Fire Department (CFD) chief Joel Behlings first joined the department in 1986, when a fire call came in, it was a race to the station.
At that time, with so many active firefighters, Behlings said unless a firefighter arrived at the station right away, they were lucky to get on an engine.
That’s not the case in 2013.
Last week, when a home caught fire at 2:30 a.m., there were only four firefighters able to initially respond, although more arrived shortly thereafter. Many times, only three department members can make the initial response to a call. With a roster of 30 firefighters—18 to 20 of which Behlings said are active—it’s no wonder CFD is looking for a few good men or women.
And, they aren’t alone.
A nationwide trend that started on the coasts has now hit the Midwest, and CFD is just one of many departments across the nation that is seeing dwindling rosters, aging veterans and what seems to be an overall lack of volunteers to fight fires in the community. Gone are the days when every business owner on main street was on the fire department. Now, a handful of volunteers respond to the 100 to 120 calls the department gets each year. In the last three weeks alone, CFDâï¿½ï¿½has responded to three structure fires and 18 calls overall.
“It’s a little more stressful for the volunteer (departments),”âï¿½ï¿½Behlings said.
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, volunteers comprise 71 percent of the firefighters in the U.S., and of the 30,165 fire departments in the country, 20,857 are all volunteer, while another 5,099 are mostly volunteer. However, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has seen a steady decline, and has gone down by 10 percent since 1984. Departments are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain members, particularly younger members.
The reasons are many.
An increase in time required for training demands, longer commuting distances to and from work and the prevalence of two-income households are all issues that hold people back. In short, time is in short supply.
“It’s changing times. There are a lot more activities going on with kids now,” Behlings said. “I don’t remember there being this many activities going on when I was in school.”
Bill Bell, the department’s first assistant chief and one of its longest-tenured veterans with 26 years experience, agreed.
“It’s not like it was 20 years ago. Both husband and wife work now, and it’s hard to make time if they have kids and school activities,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“It’s a concern. Some jobs won’t let people come and go as they please. Most employers around Custer have been good about that.”
To become a volunteer firefighter, all prospective members must first complete what is known as the South Dakota Firefighters Essentials Class and achieve state certification, which is approximately 120 hours of training. On top of that, there are 24 hours of wild land fire training, including physical fitness tests, and the department holds two training nights a month and requires 20 hours of in-house training per year. All told, the training can be up to a couple hundred hours when all is said and done. Officers have even more training they must complete.
Bell said he completed at least 90 hours of training in 2012. Jim Lyon II, one of the department’s newest members, said he also did over 90 hours of training, but was aided by the fact that he did not have to do some of the Essentials class since he has been an Emergency Medical Technician for years. The department pays for all training expenses for its members.
“It’s definitely something you have to be committed to,”âï¿½ï¿½Lyon said.âï¿½ï¿½“It’s not something you can go in and not be committed to doing or you will never make it through it.”
Lyon, like many others, said one of the reasons he got involved with the department was because of a desire to give back to the community in which he lives. In just a little over a year, he was named the department’s Firefighter of the Year because of his high volume of calls responded to.
“Iâï¿½ï¿½knew they were a little shorthanded at times,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “It’s something I’ve always been interested in. Iâï¿½ï¿½like the physical aspect of it. Sitting in the bank, driving a desk all day, it’s nice to get out and have some physical work.”
Bell felt that same call to volunteer when he joined, and said he loves the challenge that comes with being a firefighter.
“I like all aspects of it. Every incident is something different,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“Iâï¿½ï¿½enjoy it.”
To combat the lack of firefighters, CFD has implemented a program in which there are now three different classifications of firefighters. A Type One firefighter can do everything for the department, including interior attack on structure fires and being on the fire lines at wild fires. A Type Two firefighter provides ground support at a fire, doing such jobs as puling hose, setting up ladders, operating fire engines or fighting structure fires from outside the house. The Type Three firefighter is more of an administrative supporter of the department—someone who can help with the department’s public relations or do maintenance around the fire hall. The department also now has a training incentive program in which firefighters can receive a $250 payout every year in which they fulfill all their training requirements.
For many of the firefighters on the CFD, the pull to volunteer is a family affair. There are several father-son combinations on the department, and others whose father was on the department but has since retired. The median age of the department is 37, with Behlings saying most of the members are between the ages of 18 to 30 and 38 to 50. The youngest member of the department is 18, while the oldest is 61.
In 2012, CFD responded to 161 calls. Unfortunately, as its membership declines its responsibility continues to grow, with the department not only fighting fires, but assisting with medical calls, vehicle extrications and water rescues.
The situation is something of a catch-22, Behlings said. If the department isn’t busy, it’s hard to keep volunteers. If it’s too busy, too few of members are volunteering too many hours. It may all be leading to a time when the day volunteer departments are replaced by paid departments or mostly paid departments.
“Iâï¿½ï¿½think that’s where it’s heading,” Behlings said.
These days, when the CFD pager goes off, because of the lack of numbers, the department almost always requests mutual aid from area fire departments, including Argyle, Pringle and Hill City. Many of those departments are in the same boat as Custer and request CFDâï¿½ï¿½mutual aid for fires in their communities.
Perhaps nobody understands the demands on a volunteer firefighter better than their spouse and children. Many birthday parties, dinners, school events and planned getaways are interrupted when the department is needed.
“My family has definitely understood,”âï¿½ï¿½Bell said.âï¿½ï¿½“When the pagers go, they take the brunt. That’s why we acknowledge spouses and families. Maybe we don’t do it enough.”
“My wife is a dispatcher. She understands the need to go out and respond to this stuff and have people to help out,”âï¿½ï¿½Lyon said. “We just make it work.”
All three firefighters encourage anyone interested in joining the department to come take a look to see what it’s all about. Adults ales and females of all ages are welcome to join the department.
“It’s a good experience,”âï¿½ï¿½Lyon said.âï¿½ï¿½“You meet a lot of great people in the fire service.”
While the department always is hoping and working for new members, the dedicated volunteers who are already on the department will continue to answer the call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, serving the people of their community. It can be hard, emotional and stressful work, but work that they enjoy.
Behlings said he plans to remain on the department “for as long as he can.” To this day, he, along with all of his fellow volunteers, still love the thrill of climbing onto an engine and setting off into the unknown.
“If anybody tells you they didn’t join because of the red lights and sirens,”âï¿½ï¿½he said with a smile, “they’re lying.”
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