The Vanishing Volunteer Firefighter: What it Means for Carroll County
As volunteers decline, funding may have to increase to keep citizens safe.
Carroll County is home to 14 volunteer fire departments, and Westminster Fire Department President Bob Cumberland said that if the trend of declining volunteers continues, local government is going to have to consider increasing funding.
Volunteers comprise 72 percent of firefighters in the United States according to the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).
The number of volunteer firefighters in the United States declined by more than 8 percent between 1984 and 2008, according to NVFC. And it declined 5.4 percent between 2009-2010.
Josh Evans is a volunteer firefighter at the Westminster Fire Company and a career firefighter in Baltimore City. A "career firefighter" is a paid employee.
Evans said that now there are simply so many options for young people, volunteer service at the local fire company is less attractive.
"The downfall for us is people that come in and can’t ride the emergency equipment yet—it gets boring watching trucks pull in and out of the station," Evans said. "Why would I want to come in and spend my Friday night here when I can go to movie or high school football game?"
According to Evans, who previously served as the recruiting manager for the Westminster Fire Department, 30 to 35 people a year are interviewed to be volunteer firefighters at the Westminster station. He said the department may retain 60 percent of them.
Evans said that another challenge to recruiting and keeping members (volunteers) is the training requirements.
"In the '70s you could join, come in to a meeting that night and you could just jump on a truck and go," Evans said. "Training now is 102 hours minimum and a 24-hour hazmat course. It takes four to five months to get the minimum training and seven months for EMT training to ride the ambulance."
Even after someone has accomplished the training, Evans said the danger level and time commitment make volunteer firefighting a challenge for people who have jobs and families.
"The biggest challenge is that it’s a dangerous job and you’re doing it for free," Evans said.
"It can be a burden on family—having to get up from the dinner table to go on a call, plus there's the physical wear and tear on the body," Evans said.
According to a USA Today article, "There is no greater, longer-running expression of volunteerism in U.S. history than the volunteer fire service, which still saves taxpayers billions of dollars each year."
Almost three-fourths of the nation's 1.1. million firefighters are volunteers, and two-thirds of all fire departments are volunteer, according to USA Today.
Westminster Fire Company President Bob Cumberland said that community leaders and decision makers are going to have to realize that there will likely come a time when more taxpayer dollars have to be spent on keeping the community safe.
"The community and political people are going to have to look at the reality of what's happening," Cumberland said. "We are 'out of sight, out of mind'—you don't need us until you really need us."
According to Cumberland, the Westminster Fire Department received approximately $1.1 million from the county for this current operating year and $250,000 from the city of Westminster. The department's operating budget is close to $2.5 million he said.
"The department expenses were more the $2.5 million," Cumberland said. "The rest of the funding came from EMS billing and fundraisers which do not always cover all the expenses to operate a fire department."
During budget planning sessions earlier this year, Neal Roop, a representative of the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Service Association told the board of Carroll County Commissioners that the county saves millions of dollars because of volunteers according to the CCVESA website.
The Westminster Fire Department currently has 45 part-time and full-time career responders and between 35 to 40 active volunteers, Cumberland said. Between January and August of 2012, the Westminser Fire Department handled 1000 fire calls and 3,013 EMS calls.
Cumberland said it is difficult to track the decline in volunteers at the Westminster department because not all volunteer firefighters volunteer on a regular basis. A member may not go on a call for six months but if he is a paying member he is still considered an active volunteer.