Waterville volunteer fireman Randy Mead charges the lines with water to test hoses at the fire department, which has 22 volunteers.
Many fire departments across northwest Ohio and the rest of the state are pleading for citizens to step up in their communities to address an ongoing drastic shortage in volunteers that is being blamed on busier lifestyles and financial constraints.
“We normally run about 30 people classed as volunteers,” said Waterville fire Chief Patrick Wambo. “We’re at 22 now. ...”
U.S. Census data provided through the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed that as of January, 2012, Ohio had 1,143 registered fire departments. Of those, 62 percent are run entirely by volunteers.
Tim Adams, the president of the Ohio State Firefighters Association, said, “Most departments are down to about half of the staff they had 10 to 15 years ago.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Volunteer firefighters
The National Fire Protection Association reported that from 1984 to 2012, the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States fell 13 percent, from 897,750 to 783,300.
“There are shortages across the board,” said Joe Buehrer, a full-time firefighter for Swanton Fire Department.
The reasons behind the decreases vary, but common culprits stand out.
“People are very busy today; they’re pulled in different directions. It comes down to a time issue,” Ohio State Fire Marshal Larry Flowers said.
In Ohio, the easiest way to become a certified volunteer firefighter is to take a 36-hour class at an accredited training institution, followed by an online state certification test. Then, once all the Ohio Department of Public Safety paperwork has been filled out, a volunteer can receive his or her certification card.
However, the simplest way is no longer widely accepted.
Waterville volunteer firefighter John Cannon purges air from a fire hose during weekly training.
Jamie Blake, a firefighter and paramedic with the Swanton Fire Department, said many departments prefer a different level, which requires a 120-hour training class.
Adding to time constraints, in 2008, the state changed the requirements for state certification, requiring that all firefighters, including volunteers, be recertified every three years.
Most departments require emergency training too.
Keith Feeney, Sr., a fire inspector with Perrysburg Township Fire Department and the president of Northwest Ohio Volunteer Firemen’s Association, said, “Eighty to 85 percent of our runs are for EMS calls.”
The EMS side of volunteering has a major demand on time. In its Volunteer Fire Service Fact Sheet, the National Volunteer Fire Council reported, “Most fire departments across the country have experienced a steady increase in calls over the past two decades. ... Most of the increase is attributed to a sharp increase in the number of emergency medical calls and false alarms. The number of fire calls has actually declined over the period.”
The economy is an issue as well. Some volunteer firefighters do get paid. Ms. Blake and Mr. Buehrer said Swanton primarily has volunteers that are paid about $20 per call.
There is also a per-hour payment system, but that has drawbacks.
Chief Wambo said that pay does not cover what people need. He said that on average, a volunteer puts in only 8 to 10 hours a week between training and incidents, which would result in very little hourly pay.
Economic challenges have shifted a resident’s priorities.
“Families have less disposable income and less opportunity to give up time to volunteer,” said Chief Porter “Chip” Welch, president of Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association. “Spouses are working two or three jobs to make ends meet.” When free time does arise, he said, people have more of a focus on spending that time with their families.
Regardless of the cause, the effects could prove perilous.
When an emergency call is placed, the dispatcher will “tone out” the call to volunteers to report the incident.
“Communities and townships that are covered solely by volunteer departments, certainly with fewer people available, that causes delay in response time,” Chief Welch said. “A fire doubles in size every minute that it’s burning, so there is more damage and there is less likely of a chance at rescuing the people inside.”
Particularly during the day, when volunteers are busy at their full-time jobs, it can be difficult to find enough people to respond to a fire or EMS call, said Chief Wambo, who is the only full-time staff at the Waterville Fire Department. Sometimes dispatchers have to “tone out twice” because of delayed responses, he said.
In these situations, fire departments often rely on mutual aid. With mutual aid, the fire department originally contacted has the dispatcher send the call to neighboring departments, which could assist.
Some federal and state programs have been put in place to help fire departments with volunteer recruitment and retention.
The National Volunteer Fire Council set up the hotline 1-800-FIRE-LINE. All calls within Ohio go to the state fire marshal’s office. From there, the office sets up the caller with the necessary information so he or she can get involved with the local fire department.
The fire chiefs’ association also offers retention and recruitment workshops to retain the volunteers they have.
The state is doing its part as well by spending $1 million. In all, nearly 1,000 firefighters are expected to receive training.
“We have to get creative to make things work,” Mr. Buehrer said.