Giving Compass' Take:
- Many rural communities can't afford the total cost of a fire department and are trying to find funding solutions for volunteer firefighters.
- What are the long-term implications of insufficient firefighters as climate change worsens?
- Read these three wildfire lessons for forest towns.
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"When firefighters show up to a blaze or medical emergency across much of the United States, they most likely are volunteers. It's also likely the department is understaffed, struggling to replace old equipment and facing uncertainty about its next generation of firefighters," reports Alex Brown of Stateline. "More than 80 percent of the nation's fire departments are made up entirely or mostly of volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association. . . . But participation has dwindled, from nearly 900,000 volunteers in 1984 to a low of 677,000 in 2020. Meanwhile, fire departments have responded to more than triple the number of calls over that same period."
"While some departments have brought on full-time paid firefighters to fill the gaps, [but] many communities, especially in rural areas, can't afford the cost of a professional fire service," Brown explains. Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications with the National Volunteer Fire Council, told Brown, "A lot of communities don't have the tax base and support to switch to a career staffing model."
Tania Daffron, an assistant chief of administration and planning in Bloomington, Indiana, told The Rural Blog that many communities have historically paid volunteers per "call or run -- the more runs, the greater the pay. . . . The stipends aren't necessarily new, but departments are trying to increase the amount to make it more worthwhile for the personnel to respond."
Brown reports, "Some states have begun their own response" to the firefighter shortage. "Lawmakers from both parties have advanced bills to provide financial benefits or tax breaks for volunteers or funding for new equipment in hopes of incentivizing firefighters to join up or stay in service." Mississippi encourages retention by creating an investment fund for each volunteer and putting in $500 for each year served. "Last year, New York lawmakers unanimously passed a measure enabling local municipalities to enact property tax breaks of up to 10% for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers," Brown reports. Assemblyman Kevin Byrne told Brown. "It's hard to get young members, and it needs to be sustainable so they can justify going to a call at 3 in the morning and leaving their loved ones. . . . That's where the property-tax exemption is meaningful and makes it easier for people to justify the work."
Read the full article about rural firefighters by Heather Close at The Rural Blog.