Young children read many stories about the important work of firefighters. Most people probably have a fond memory of taking a field trip to the fire station during their elementary school years. If they were lucky, they got to climb up into the fire truck or put on a fire hat. Which of us didn’t anxiously await the appearance of sparkling red fire trucks with sirens blazing at the start of every parade? Kids in every city and town dream about one day becoming a heroic firefighter. While we’ve taught our children at very young ages of the important work that firefighters do, why is it that the percentage of firefighters is dropping? What is the effect of the shortage of volunteer firefighters on the few remaining firefighters left to respond to calls?
Why Doesn’t Anyone Want to Be a Firefighter?
It’s not that children don’t want to grow up to be firefighters. As society has grown over the last few decades, several factors have made it more difficult to interest young people in becoming firefighters. The training requirements have increased and many people can’t invest the required amount of time in getting certified. People are traveling farther distances for work which takes them too far from their hometowns to respond to fire and rescue calls. Most of today’s households require two incomes, so it’s impractical for one person to work full-time and commit to part-time service as a firefighter.
As communities have changed and progressed, they haven’t confronted the challenges that inhibit people from starting a career as a full-time or volunteer firefighter.
Declining Percentages of Firefighters and Inclining Rings of Fire Alarms
About 70% of firefighters serve on a volunteer basis. Most towns and villages can’t afford to hire full-time paid firefighters, especially the smaller and rural communities. For the reasons previously listed, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped by 12% since 1984.
Firefighters who’ve served their communities for decades are now reaching retirement age. With hoards of firefighters leaving the field and so few younger firefighters replacing them, the shortage of firefighters leaves a huge burden on smaller numbers of firefighters left at the station house. Station houses that are short-staffed will force the existing regime to take on more shifts and for longer hours. Rotations will be shorter, which means less days off.
While there are fewer firefighters to call to duty, the call volume is increasing. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that the call volume has tripled in recent years and continues to rise each year. NFPA states that there was an all-time high of 30.6 million emergency calls in 2015.
Firefighter Shortages Lead to Slower Response Times
Most fire departments strive to respond to an emergency within four minutes. The state of Wisconsin has many rural areas where they are feeling the shortage of firefighters. Many Wisconsin communities say that their firefighter workforce is down by 15-30%.
Las Vegas also reports a shortage of firefighters. News articles report that they are meeting their four-minute response goal only about 51% of the time due to staffing shortages.
Fire service advocates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey state that they’ve not seen the ill effects of poor response to emergency calls just yet, but the writing is on the wall for the future if they can’t boost the numbers of volunteer firefighters very soon.
A fire doubles in size with every minute that firefighters delay getting to the scene, so shortages of first responders will certainly equate to deaths in the future.
The Shortage of Firefighters Stresses the Station House
Firefighters are under much stress even when the fire station is adequately staffed. The stress of traumatic calls where people are injured or killed cause a chemical reaction in the brains of firefighters causing them to be hypervigilant and have PTSD. The chronic nature of job-related stress causes them to acquire other types of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Severe issues of PTSD and anxiety can lead to problems with substance abuse or cause suicide. According to a report by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in 2014, firefighters were more than three times as likely to experience a suicide than a line-of-duty death.
Many firefighters try to hide their stress levels because they don’t want people to view them as weak, and they know how badly the community needs them. Hiding stress may appear to be a coping mechanism; however, not dealing with stress only makes it worse.
Shortages of staff in the firehouse increase the chances that smaller staffs of firefighters will struggle with mental health issues or burnout completely from the stress and not be able to perform on the job. Since most of the fire departments in our country are run by volunteers who live and work in the community, the chance of knowing victims who were seriously hurt or killed in an accident are very high, which adds to the existing stress of a trauma.
Advanced Health and Education developed a program called Frontline Responder Services especially for first responders who need professional help and want to receive it from current or retired first responders.
Rebuilding a National Workforce of Firefighters
Firefighters, council members, trustees, and other governmental officials know that they need to be more proactive about recruiting young, able-bodied firefighters to replace the cadre of soon-to-be retiring firefighters.
Firefighters admit that one thing they could do better is to promote the need for firefighters within their communities. In 2015, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) launched a program called “Make Me a Firefighter,” to help communities recruit volunteer firefighters. The campaign consists of a portal where fire stations or communities can post their volunteer opportunities, track results, access tools for advertising with the media, and create pe
rsonal invitations to potential recruits. The campaign also includes outreach materials for ads, emails, and flyers.
Former New York firefighter Tim Brown says that they feel that veterans are particularly suited to become firefighters because they are accustomed to commands. Brown also notes that veterans are usually young, relatively healthy, strong, and have great stamina.
Many high schools or communities have Explorer programs that give high school student
Every town has unique needs, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work well. The states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey are considering offering incentives for firefighter recruits like tax credits and discounts on building permits and pet licensing fees.
The shortage of firefighters is a crisis in itself. Communities are starting to feel the effects of the shortage. Response times are getting too long in some communities. Shortages are stressing the remaining staff of firefighters. With the increase of alarm calls, more work needs to be done in recruiting firefighters and investing in training them. Firefighting is a needed public safety service, and it’s one that youth will continually admire.
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Executive Officer with 360 Wellness Inc. and currently the Vice President of Responder Services (www.frontlinerehab.com) with Advanced Health & Education and Cedar Point Recovery Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called "Firefighter Wellness Radio" with Fire Engineering. He has helped hundreds of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.