Rural Firefighter and EMS Shortage

A shortage of volunteer firefighters and paramedics across rural America is forcing fire chiefs to find creative solutions to attract and retain a strong workforce.

As of 2015, there were 814,850 volunteer firefighters in the U.S., which represents nearly 70 percent of the country’s fire and rescue workers, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. The time they donate saves small towns and communities about $46.9 billion a year. “The cost savings provided by fire service volunteers is tremendous,” says the Fire Council’s 2018 report. “For many communities, switching to a career staffing model is not feasible.”

Volunteer fire departments are having to find other options to staff their stations, and that’s presenting a challenge. The number of volunteer firefighters reached a low in 2011, according to the Fire Council report. A slow increase in growth since then “isn’t enough to meet the steady increase in call volume, which has tripled in the last 30 years due in large part to the increase in emergency medical calls,” the report says. Candidates face more rigorous education and training requirements and the challenge of living in a two-income family, which gives them little time to volunteer.

Meantime, fire departments are receiving more calls for a broader range of fire, rescue, and medical services. For departments operating with a skeleton crew, that can mean sleep deprivation, decreased productivity, physical illness, and even mental or emotional strain.

As a result, many rural fire departments are moving to a mixed workforce structure, combining what paid employees the agency can afford with a shrinking pool of volunteer EMTs, often offering hourly or per-call allowance as incentives.

Some experts, like Andy Gienapp, director of the Wyoming Office of Emergency Medical Services, attribute the volunteer shortage to a cultural shift, saying younger people tend to look for less time-intensive options.

“As the average age of rural residents increases, many towns are relying on people in their 60s and 70s to manage EMS agencies,” Gienapp said in a recent Rural Health Information Hub article. “EMS is being held together by an older generation who is very much connected to their neighbors [and who believe that being an EMS volunteer] is a way they can give back to their community. But younger generations simply are not connected that way.”

Remote locations pose one of the biggest hurdles for volunteer recruitment and retention.

“EMT is a health career; it’s not a simple program,” said Ken Reed, the EMS director in Rugby, N.D., in a recent article in The Rural Monitor. “It’s two to three times the hours required for a certified nursing assistant, and you don’t see any volunteer CNAs. We are asking people to become healthcare professionals, essentially. The difference with EMS is that we are asking them to be under-compensated healthcare professionals.” Here are some methods rural fire departments have used to attract volunteer firefighters:

Last year, the Jeb Stuart Volunteer Rescue Squad in Stuart, Virginia, began offering an allowance to their volunteers. County funding and a change in billing methods allow the squad to pay stipends for up to 16 calls every two weeks, or 32 calls a month.

Mountain View Fire and Rescue, near Seattle, Wash., has a resident program that lets firefighter volunteers live rent-free at the station if they work a certain number of shifts.

Many formerly independent EMS agencies have merged with local hospitals to help with overhead. This system allows Humboldt General Hospital EMS Rescue in Winnemucca, Nevada, to employ 25 full-time paid workers and 25 quasi-volunteers.

Some companies, like a John Deere dealership in Wishek and Linton, North Dakota, offer employees paid-time off for ambulance and fire calls to support their work in the community.

In some towns, the local Chamber of Commerce provides volunteer firefighters and EMTs with rewards cards for discounts and benefits at local businesses.

The National Volunteer Fire Council, in partnership with Emergency Reporting, a cloud-based reporting and records management software for fire and EMS agencies, has published a comprehensive guide with tips and advice to help build fire departments’ volunteer base.

A link to the free guide, “How to Build a Smart Recruitment Program: Your Guide to Getting More Volunteer Firefighters,” is available at http://info.emergencyreporting.com/volunteer_recruitment_guide

What are some of the solutions you’ve found to attract and retain volunteer firefighters in your department? Share your viewpoint with us below.
1. Lukens, J. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/ruralmonitor/ems-recruitment-retention/

2. “Responder News: Can We Do More for America’s Rural Volunteer Firefighters?” 2016. Retrieved from https://www.dhs.gov/scienceand-technology/news/2016/09/20/responder-news-can-we-do-moreamericas-rural-volunteer

3. “Emergency Reporting and National Volunteer Fire Council Release Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment Guide” 2018. Retrieved from https://www.nvfc.org/emergency-reporting-and-national-volunteer-fire-councilrelease-volunteer-firefighter-recruitment-guide/

4. “2018 Volunteer Fire Service Fact Sheet” Retrieved from https://www.nvfc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/NVFC-Fact-Sheet-2018.pdf

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