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Challenges Volunteer Firefighters and their Leaders Face

Do you remember when the tones dropped and them pagers went off? The volunteers dropped what they were doing and rushed to the station to get the fire trucks out. Unfortunately, that changes a little more year by year, Fire Departments across the US faces multiple challenges, some are from within the structure of the fire department to include its Municipal Leaders or Board of Directors.

One of the most significant challenges faced in the volunteer fire service is recruitment and retention, it is a proven fact that the interest in today’s world to volunteer is shrinking year by year. A scary statistic facing the country is per the National Fire Protection Association 69% of the fire departments across the United States are volunteer, the growing lack of interest to volunteer leaves the question to many “what are we going to do”.

Today there is more and more personal agendas or even personal attacks between departments and even within a department. One person will get promoted and others will be upset and hold grudges, one will get demoted and will blame everyone else, one will quit or get removed from a department and will hold grudges and start vicious rumors about that department. No matter what the circumstance we all know that “Bad news travels faster than Good news” and once the bad news gets out regardless if it is true or not, that plays a part in making people not want to volunteer for that department.  Volunteer fire departments are changing by necessity which means they need the citizens informed and involved, they need to be honest with the citizens about the department needs and capabilities or the lack of.  There needs to be more emphasis on prevention and public education to reduce the number and severity of fires. There needs to be more open minds and equality to women and minorities as they are also interested and capable of doing the job just as good as anyone else. Today women have not only proved to be strong, hard workers and athletic but because most of them are smaller than men they are useful in the fire service as they can fit in places that men cannot. Women are interested and dedicated, and in some cases more than men.

From the leaders to the firefighters Health and Safety are more of a concern today than ever, in my opinion. Do you know the next call you are going to go on or the impact it may have in your life? No! Nobody does, but every call makes an impact in your life, big or small it has an impact. It feels good to make a difference in a tragic event, to save a life, to comfort someone and make them feel at ease. But, it hurts when we are not able to be there in time, when someone loses their life right from under us. We may seem as if we are not bothered but we are and after years of putting them calls behind us and bottling up our emotions we face an assortment of behavioral issues. Behavioral health has become a hidden concern that is often overlooked. Firefighters, both volunteer and career deal with intense trauma and other very stressful situations that can have a huge impact on their mental wellbeing. Depression, PTSD, Anxiety, Sleep Disorders all have a major impact of not only the firefighter but firefighter’s family and the rest of the department. These cases can unfortunately lead to suicide. It is very important for fire service personnel to get properly trained and have resources readily available to help them through any issues they may be dealing with. Firefighters must learn to be there for each other and know the signs to look for. Remember we can save more when we learn to save ourselves!

Board of Directors and municipal leaders can be to blame for some of the lack of interest. In most cases those who sit on a city council or Board of Director committee have never served as a firefighter or even in emergency service. That poses lots of problems when money is tight. There are many options to assist such as grants, tax increases, bond issues etc. however the goal is to try not to spend money that is not there. So, what is the problem? Firefighters do not want to risk their lives with band aids and duct tape, out dated equipment or lack of proper equipment is a progressing problem across the US. Many leaders do not want to finance apparatus or equipment and have the mentality of “if we cannot afford it then we do not need it, however one of the problems with their lack of training, knowledge and involvement is the fact that they do not understand how much equipment cost and they believe that most fire equipment is just overpriced. That may be true but equipment, apparatus's and training are all still needed.

Fire Service leaders across the country are working hard to make things work, to lower their ISO, to be NFPA compliant, to get the best equipment and training. However, they are faced with many challenges when their Board of Directors or City Leaders do not want to finance equipment. One department was offered a used 75’ Quint in mint condition with a total make over, new motor, new pump, all up to date records etc. for a quarter of what a truck would of cost however it was denied the purchase. A big problem with board of directors or municipal leaders is the fact that they have no experience in the fire service and are blind to the big picture. Some fire personnel or fire districts or municipal leaders believe that volunteers are just there to bring a fire truck and squirt water. Make sure to get the “real firefighters” on the way. I cannot speak for every volunteer department in the US but I can speak for many, volunteer or not, most are equally trained and in some cases more trained than some career folks. It shouldn’t be like that, firefighters are firefighters no matter if they volunteer their time or if they are paid.

There are many challenges in the fire service, that is not a secret. Do not let the citizens go uninformed of what is going on or not going on. If the fire department is lacking in areas, then that needs to be known and the improvements need to be shown when they are corrected. If the city leaders or Board of Directors are lacking then the citizens need to know that as well, not to stir controversy but to get the problems recognized and corrected. Give the citizens references such as other Fire Chiefs, NFPA, ISO, Insurance Agents, etc. Make sure the truth is out and not just the opinion of a leader that merely wants a position. Some have no interest in truly learning the fire service. Even then you must be careful, a 20-year veteran may not have the right training and may be biased to his opinion. An opinion that may cost the community in many different aspects, safety, moral, equipment and training. Be a voice!

In closing, these challenges are faced across the country and on different scales. Firefighters need to come together and stay together. All emergency service personnel have our jobs to do but the number one job is to come home safe. Keep moving forward, no matter how many times your pushed back by your leaders you must remember, the citizens need you. Don’t give up.


Jeremy Perrien

Fire Chief – Scott County Rural, Mo


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