The fire service in America is, and has always had to deal with change and remain adaptable to the situation at hand to mitigate often life-threatening incidents for their community. These incidents may involve family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

The one thing that does remain constant for the fire department is the need for volunteers. During a political season when people are running for the fire district board or perhaps a town council or city council, a platform for candidates will be that recruitment of volunteers must occur. This is an effort that is typically ongoing as the turnover rate for volunteer firefighters is fairly high, with the volunteers engaging for only three to five years on a national average. The NFPA indicates there are 1,149,300 firefighters in the U.S. and that of this number, 808,150, or 70 percent, are volunteer members. The communities of this nation are protected by a high number of volunteer or mostly volunteer fire agencies, which comprise 87 percent of all departments in the U.S. (NFPA 2016).

The commitment to volunteer for the fire department comes with risks, and this sometimes will cause a potential candidate to choose another path of volunteerism that poses less risk and less time commitment. Opportunities are found in many operations that need volunteers to help the staff, including libraries, hospitals, the American Red Cross, animal shelters, even law enforcement agencies. Of these volunteer opportunities, no other commitment faces the risks, training time, volunteer on demand requirement, time away from a career or work place and time away from family that the fire service requires of an individual.

In our fathers’ volunteer fire department, the members were predominately business owners, local shop managers or owners that could lock the door when the community fire siren activated to call them to a secondary duty of being a firefighter. This was acceptable practice when the fire department responded to primarily fire calls that occurred 200 times a year, but demands for service have changed. The volunteer firefighter of today needs to be trained to provide EMS services, hazardous materials response, structure firefighting, wildland firefighting, in some instances marine firefighting on the water and aircraft rescue and firefighting, such as Newport. In the fire departments of today, we see a low volume response requirement hovering around 1,000 calls per year, or an average of 83 calls per month. Larger combination departments are responding to 2,500 or more calls per year in Lincoln County. Few employers of today would tolerate seeing an employee leave the work site three to 11 times per day to answer the fire call.

The National Volunteer Fire Council indicates that the best recruiters for the volunteer fire department are the volunteers themselves, not the fire chief, not a hired recruiter. It is the personal interactions of the volunteer members that can communicate on a personal level about volunteering with potential new members.

The Newport Volunteer Firefighters have found this to be a very accurate statement and use this approach to bring in new members. Our volunteers have worked hard to create a recruiting program and bring in people they know to join the ranks. Across the U.S., the age of the volunteer members is becoming of concern as our volunteer force becomes older, thereby becoming challenged physically to do the labor intensive work of being a firefighter. The dynamics to recruit volunteers on the coast is an additional challenge with a high number of retirees who have moved to the region for the golden years, or industries where the physically capable are working in a processing plant or spend a great deal of time in the fishing fleet operations, which also takes time away from their families.

The fire service and community are only borrowing the members from every other aspect of their lives. We must respect this and accommodate what commitment they can give us and the community — they deserve our respect. No, it is not my father’s volunteer fire department in the 21st century!

Robert Harvey is the assistant chief with the Newport Fire Department.

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