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Fire Departments struggle to find volunteers

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Stacy Vogel
January 6, 2008

Town of Beloit Fire Chief Dennis Ahrens lost a third of his volunteer firefighters this year.


A dozen of the department’s 33 volunteers left—three of them for professional firefighting jobs.


“It’s hard to find people who want to stay here,” he said.


Ahrens isn’t the only fire chief with problems attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters. Several Rock County chiefs told The Janesville Gazette they’ve struggled to fill their volunteer departments or they’re worried it will become a problem in the future.


Fortunately, Ahrens has 10 paid firefighters to fall back on when volunteers are scarce. The department is known as a combination fire department, with some paid employees and some volunteers.


Other departments don’t have that resource, but Ahrens believes more all-volunteer departments will become combination departments as the number of volunteers drops.


Volunteer retention and recruitment has become a nationwide problem in the last few decades. In May, the National Volunteer Fire Council released a 260-page report detailing the problem, reasons behind it and possible solutions.


It reported the number of volunteer firefighters dropped 11 percent between 1984 and 2003, though it rose slightly in the 1990s. The problem is alarming because volunteers make up 73 percent of the nation’s firefighters, it said.


One of the biggest reasons for volunteer turnover is the increased demands on firefighters, local chiefs said. Federal and state training requirements for volunteers have risen steadily, and firefighters are expected to respond to much more than fires now, they said.


“When I first got on, I didn’t need any training,” said Tim Huffman, town of Turtle fire chief. “They just threw my butt in the fire.”


Now, 27 years later, firefighters spend 80 hours of training just learning how to use a pump, he said.


“You spend the first year in training,” he said. “That takes up a lot of your weekends and your nights.”


Departments sometimes struggle to respond to fires in the daytime because it can be hard for volunteers to leave their day jobs, said Chief Mike Halvensleben with the Evansville Fire Department.


That’s where a few paid employees can come in, Ahrens said.


“You can see the smaller departments going with one or two full-time people to help man their day-to-day operations,” he said.


But even combination departments can be prohibitively expensive, said Larry Plumer, president of the Wisconsin State Firefighters Association. Combination departments make up just 12 percent of Wisconsin departments. Volunteer departments make up 82 percent.


“I think (combination departments are) going to be a very hard-looking sell because that’s going to add more taxes to our community,” he said.


This year, Chief Loren Lippincott of the Milton Joint Fire Department proposed creating a 12-person, full-time staff by 2011 to supplement volunteer response. He predicted the move would nearly double the department’s budget, from $538,000 in 2007 to more than $1 million.


The department has four part-time, paid positions to cover daytime calls on weekdays.


A task force rejected the idea, citing the expense, but the fire commission did agree to raise the pay for volunteers when they respond to calls in 2008.


Before turning to full-time firefighters, Halvensleben, whose department doesn’t have any paid employees, said he’d probably try to pay volunteers to be on-call for specific shifts in Evansville, he said.


“My next step would be, ‘OK, I need to make sure an engine gets out, so we’ll have five guys on call every day so I know they can get out,’” he said.


Plumer believes the most important task for departments is to convince future generations of the importance and value of service, he said.


“We’ve got to educate our young people that it is a service giving back to our community,” he said.


KEEPING VOLUNTEERS

Larry Plumer, president of the Wisconsin State Firefighters Association and the Wisconsin Fire and EMS Legislative Leadership Coalition, listed incentives to attract and retain volunteer firefighters:


-- Financial incentives such as retirement bonuses. The state now allows municipalities or fire departments to set aside up to $250 per year per firefighter in a retirement account, and the state will match it. Firefighters must stay in the department 20 years to receive the benefit, he said.


-- Tax exemptions. In December, Congress passed the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act. The act exempts from federal taxation the first $360 per year a volunteer firefighter receives. It also exempts from federal taxation all tax benefits provided to the volunteer by state and local governments.


The act now is headed to the president to sign into law.


-- Job protection. The legislative leadership coalition hopes to have a bill introduced in the state legislature that would protect volunteers who are late to their jobs because of fire calls.


“I know three incidents where guys came in five minutes late to their jobs, and they were given three days off with no pay,” Plumer said.


Businesses should accommodate volunteer firefighters because if they weren’t around, those businesses would be paying a lot more in taxes to fund a professional department, Plumer said.


-- Youth programs. The National Volunteer Fire Council has created a National Junior Firefighter program to offer resources and information to local programs. Communities with junior firefighter programs in Wisconsin include Dairyland, Medford, Somerset and Rewey.


The programs introduce young people to fire stations and encourage them to join as volunteers when they’re older, Plumer said.


ARE THEY VOLUNTEERS?

Few fire departments are staffed by true “volunteers” anymore, said Dennis Ahrens, Town of Beloit fire chief.


“Volunteerism is kind of out,” he said. “Everybody is being paid now for what they’re doing.”


Actually, the correct classification for most “volunteer” departments, including ones in Rock County, is paid-on-call. Firefighters receive a certain amount, which can range anywhere from $4 an hour to $13 an hour or more, for responding to calls. Some departments also pay firefighters for training hours.


Each department arranges pay differently. For example, the Edgerton Fire Protection District only budgets money to pay the chief and officers. Pay for the firefighters comes from the proceeds of an annual firefighters ball. They usually end up with $8 or $9 per call or training session.


The Milton Joint Police Department, on the other hand, pays firefighters directly for calls and training. They receive between $8 and $12 an hour.


The departments are called “volunteer” to differentiate them from professional fire departments, where firefighters work scheduled shifts and receive regular wages.



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