They’re often the first ones on the scene of major emergencies, but their numbers appear to be dwindling.
Volunteer firefighters help communities in ways both obvious — fighting fires— and overlooked — improving communities’ home insurance rates through ISO ratings.
Yet local departments in Alabama have felt the same sting as others around the country as the volunteer force skews older and the influx of newcomers fades each year.
“It’s every department across the United States,” said Ashford (Alabama) Fire Chief Jimmy Posey. “I drove out to Yellowstone last year. Every state I went through, you’d see towns and small communities with signs out: ‘Come volunteer for your local fire department.’ It’s a nationwide problem.”
The reasons for the decline are multi-faceted, according to local chiefs.
One deterrent is the level of work involved.
“It’s not made for everybody,” Posey said. “It’s long, hard work. We were at a structure fire (Wednesday) morning that started at 6:30 and we were there until 10:30. It’s very physically exhausting work.”
Perhaps a bigger factor, however, is the sheer time investment involved.
Volunteer departments don’t just respond to fires. They’re just as likely to work the scene of a car accident or a major weather event.
“If you look at the callouts, it’s medical calls, accidents, helping the county in situations of high wind or tornadic activity,” said Lucy (Alabama) Fire Chief J.R. Sessions. “One of the things they’re (pushing) a lot right now, ISO and other people, is training, training, training. They want us to train as much as a fulltime fireman, and that’s hard.”
Many younger people choose to spend their free time differently, in ways that are more structured from a time standpoint.
“If you want to know where all the young people are, go to the ball fields,” Sessions said. “If you work a fulltime job of 40-plus hours and have any family time, there’s only so much time you can train. Not a lot of people want to get up in the middle of the night off a warm bed and go out to an accident or fire scene.”
Two of the exceptions to the trend are 21-year-old Ashford volunteers Joe Jackson and Tyler McClenny.
Both are enthusiastic and got involved for similar reasons, mainly a desire to help people in need.
“It’s really just helping the community, that and I wouldn’t mind pursuing it as a career one day, so I’m getting that experience,” said Jackson, who has been with the department for a little more than a year.
McClenny followed in the footsteps of his father, a 20-year Dothan firefighter, by joining the Ashford department two years ago.
“Just being around it and wanting to help other people, that got me involved,” he said. “This is the kind of stuff that (lets) you help people every day.”
Neither McClenny nor Jackson were aware of the dwindling number of young volunteers, and neither was quite sure how to combat it.
“Maybe (departments) should try to get people involved in it by spreading around the word,” McClenny said. “We have a pretty active community, so everybody knows what’s going on. We go to a lot of football games, so a lot of people see us. It helps when people can ask questions.”
That doesn’t mean they’re immune to the same issues that keep others away, but the rewards outweigh the sacrifices.
“I work fulltime and sometimes we have calls during the day I wish I could make,” Jackson said. “Being young, I enjoy it. It’s fun. There’s sometimes you get hot and everything, but other than that it’s fun.”
Chiefs are encouraging more local participation, emphasizing the importance of volunteerism.
“It’s the most thankless job you’ll ever do, but it’s the most gratification you’ll ever have,” Posey said. “Go to your local department and volunteer. Talk to the chief, talk to the members. Just come out and see what it’s like.”
Ashford Mayor Jonathan Grecu also volunteers for the department.
“I believe you have to show the importance of volunteerism,” he said. “It’s a dying cause. If we can teach our young people what their responsibility is to their community, it creates opportunities for volunteerism to expand naturally.