USA GREAT FALLS – The National Volunteer Fire Council says communities across the United States rely heavily on volunteer fire departments. They say of the almost 30,000 fire departments across the country, about 20,000 are volunteer-based.
But, studies show the number of volunteer firefighters in the US has declined by around 12% since 1984 — and Montana is not immune to this disturbing national trend.
The Montana State Fire Chief’s Association says around 400 of the the state’s 435 fire department are volunteer-run. They say the state relies heavily on volunteer efforts to provide emergency responses in their communities.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is responsible for fire protection on 50 million acres across the state. But, the DNRC directly protects only 10% of those lands.
“On the other 45 million acres, local government firefighters are the first line of defense- we ask them and expect them to make the initial response to wild land fires with the hope that they’re going to catch that fire and we’re actually never gonna be involved,” said MT DNRC Fire & Aviation management bureau chief Michael DeGrosky.
Without crews providing the first line of defense, the DNRC must intervene, which DeGrosky says costs Montana taxpayers and exposes more property and lives to the threat of fire.
The National Fire Protection Association says time donated by volunteer firefighters saves localities across the country an estimated $139.8 billion per year.
Studies from the NVFC show while the number of volunteer firefighters has declined, the age of volunteers has increased.This means crews can risk effectiveness during an emergency.
“Extrication tools — like the jaws of life, those are very heavy and with a charged hose line those are very heavy — for about every 50 feet or so, you’re pulling easily over 100 pounds,” said Black Eagle Volunteer Firefighter Christopher Lee.
DeGrosky says the state’s aging population is one of several problems stemming from the shortage. He says employers are also less tolerant than they used to be.
“We’ve had volunteers tell us that I cant respond during the day, my boss won’t let me; If I came back from a fire I would not have a job,” said DeGrosky.
DeGrosky says the DNRC has also seen a decline in self-employed volunteers along with those from farming and ranching backgrounds and an increase in the number of volunteers employed outside of their fire district. He says this means a fire or emergency call could go unanswered.
Manchester Volunteer Fire Chief and Vice Chairman for the MSFCA Leonard Lundby says a typical crew consists of 25 volunteers, but rural fire departments often make do with less.
“If I have 24 people, eight of them are available at any one time to actually go on a call- that’s why numbers are so important,” said Lundby.
A FEMA grant helped the MSFCA launch an ad campaign featuring members on billboards and media pages along with an updated website. Lundby says this is the first state-wide attempt to attract and retain volunteer firefighters.
“It’s too early to tell yet whether that’s going to be successful, but, we recognize the fact that something needed to be done and we needed to take a proactive stance in trying to recruit those volunteers,” said Lundby.
The DNRC is a member of the Montana Fire Alliance, an organization that’s working with the Montana State Fire Chief’s Association and the Montana State Fire Warden’s Association in recruitment efforts.
“These things don’t go anywhere by themselves- I can have a new station, fanciest trucks, and it doesn’t mean a thing if I don’t have good people to put in ’em,” said Lundby.