In every age, wherever people have built communities, the danger of fire has been ever present. Across America, as land becomes towns and towns become cities, people have come together to find ways to protect one another from the hazards that fire and disasters can bring. For centuries, calm summer evenings and quiet wintery nights have been interrupted by the sound of a fire station alarm. And men and women from all walks of life have scrambled to the call, harnessing equipment and mustering courage to rush to the aid of those in need. And in every single community in America, the majority of those men and women are volunteers. Volunteers staffed the first fire companies in the U.S. and not much has changed — except their numbers — which have fallen rapidly over the last several decades.
In North Carolina and other states in the U.S., the number of volunteer firefighters missing is at a critical emergency state. Every 4.1 days in North Carolina a life is lost to fire. That’s one person gone every week or less.
Who is next? Who will we lose this week? The truth is we are all vulnerable to fire.
This decline is one of the many reasons why the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs (NCAFC), in partnership with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has gathered 14 North Carolina fire service agencies to discover ways to do a better job of recruiting volunteer firefighters. To assist in this regard, the NCAFC obtained a SAFER grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support those departments with recruitment and retention. This past week we released the first Public Service Announcement for North Carolina, which is being broadcast across the state to bring awareness to this plight.
Volunteers make up the most significant part of fire service in the state. According to FEMA, 72 percent of North Carolina firefighters are volunteers, and 91.2 percent of departments are all or mostly volunteer. North Carolina fire departments have lost an average of 600 firefighters every year since 2016 — nationally this is an epidemic. Our strategy here at home includes a combination of traditional methods of recruitment along with using advancing technology to pinpoint with high accuracy the communities likely to have recruit candidates.
Among the technology being used, departments are implementing geographic information systems (GIS) to take in-depth looks at their communities, measuring demographic, cultural and economic data to predict the best way to recruit a volunteer firefighter workforce. Using the GIS system allows the state fire chiefs to collect data that directly affects how they recruit in their communities. By examining the data, it paints a picture of the makeup of a region and informs the organization about what potential recruits do for fun, where they work, and even the likely composition of their families. With this information, the NCAFC can host the appropriate events in the right communities and speak to the potential workforce in ways in which they can relate.
Also, several leadership workshops aimed at improving retention are being offered to all departments statewide. In the past the NCAFC has offered leadership workshops and free courses on cultivating motivation, providing officers with tools for recruiting a new generation of firefighters.
Agencies across the country are sharing data and information learned to have a more significant impact on volunteer recruitment nationwide.
In nearly every community, fire chiefs say fewer volunteers create the need for them to call on other departments outside the district to assist with calls. That puts a strain on the departments and leaves fewer firefighters to respond if a fire breaks out elsewhere.
“Let’s say you have a fire in one district you may get four different departments that come,” said Chief Lee Price from the Wake-New Hope Fire Department. “Whereas 10 to15 years ago, maybe two departments came because they had more volunteers that could handle that call.”
We are clear on many of the obstacles to recruitment — it’s hard to get volunteers because they’re working a tough job with no pay. Sometimes there’s no clear path to a career in firefighting, and a fast-paced, hectic life doesn’t always translate to a second career as a volunteer firefighter.
At the highest levels, we are strategizing new ways to approach this problem, from policy changes in government to finding ways to encourage and reward volunteer firefighters for the work they provide to their communities. We are also reaching out and advocating for employers who allow volunteers to take the time they need to help their communities to creating journeymen programs where volunteers are put on a career track.
One strategy we are deploying is to involve all members of the community in the effort. We’ve established a website www.weneedfirefighters.com that helps all members of the community; from grandparents and teachers to college students and mechanics, to find ways to help. We are also promoting entire families volunteering so when the alarm rings, not just mom or dad rushes out, but the whole family has a role to play. Spouses go to the station to support firefighters returning from the scene, older kids help around the station and so on. We’ve established a texting campaign wherein those interested in finding out about the progress and upcoming recruiting events can be notified by texting the word firefighter to 88799. A recruiting site is established at volunterfirenc.org and recruiting events, and job postings are being promoted across social media. In fact, one Facebook campaign that ran for just two days has brought in about a dozen applications.
Local events are occurring across the state with 14 selected organizations participating in the grant. Events involve the community and provide opportunities for all stakeholders to be engaged in the process. The 14 fire service agencies include: Town of Leland Fire/Rescue Department (Brunswick Co), Guil-Rand Fire Department (Randolph Co),Cherryville Fire Department (Gaston Co), Roanoke Island Fire Department (Dare Co), Conover Fire Department (Catawba Co), Piney Green Fire Department (Onslow Co), South Salisbury Fire Department (Rowan Co), Advance Fire Department (Davie Co), Gumtree Fire and Rescue (Davidson Co), Salem District Fire Department (Nash Co), New Hope Fire Department (Gaston Co), Wake County Fire Services (Wake Co), Lincoln County Fire-Rescue Association (Lincoln Co), and Cumberland County Fire Chiefs Association (Cumberland Co).
The grant is showing progress. Since we began in mid 2018, there have been over 345 applicants interested in joining a volunteer fire department with 158 of those considered actual members of departments now. We hope to get the word out to non-traditional candidates for the fire service to let them know that no matter what age, gender, race or current skillset — if you would like to volunteer with your local fire department there are positions open. Further, actual firefighters are not the only volunteers needed — the need for administrative and support volunteers is great and they are instrumental in the health and survival of a department. To date, more than 10,000 materials have been distributed across the state, and there have been more than 20,000 social media engagements with various departments.
Since the time we have been building towns and communities, volunteers have come together to keep us safe from the hazards of fire, the destructive wrath of both man-made and natural disasters. It is probably one of the most iconic and uniquely American traits, to rush to the aid of our fellow man. It is a tradition and a vital need that my colleagues and I are determined to see survive.