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Officials say shortage of volunteer firefighters an 'overlooked crisis' across Virginia and U.S.
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Officials say shortage of volunteer firefighters an 'overlooked crisis' across Virginia and U.S.

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A long-growing shortage of volunteer firefighters in some parts of the state has reached a critical level that could jeopardize public safety, according to the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association.

Roughly 70% of Virginia’s firefighters are volunteers and 552 fire departments rely on them, but their ranks are thinning here and elsewhere. Nationally from 1984 to 2018, there has been an approximate 17% drop in the number of volunteers, while the number of fire calls went up 209% during roughly the same time period — from 11,890,000 in 1986 to 36,746,500 in 2018, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

“The decline in volunteerism is an overlooked crisis that must be addressed,” says the Virginia chiefs association.

The shrinking volunteer force may impair the ability of a department to meet a community’s emergency needs. Shortages also place additional stress on the existing volunteer force that may already be stretched to its limits.

A number of factors are believed to be contributing to the shortage, including societal changes, increased population mobility and less of a sense of community.

“No area is Mayberry anymore — where you knew all of your neighbors, you would check on a neighbor. Now there are a lot of folks that come into the area and move out of the area,” said Weet Baldwin, 60, a retired hospital administrator and volunteer firefighter for 44 years.

Baldwin volunteers at the Henry Volunteer Fire Station 6 on U.S. 301 in rapidly changing Hanover County. The station serves major interstate highways, industrial, commercial, suburban residential, rural and agricultural areas.

The firefighters and emergency medical services personnel at the station operate an ambulance, an engine, a tanker, a specialty air/light unit, a brush unit and a first response unit. “There are plenty of seats to ride. We’d love to fill them all up,” Baldwin said.

He said there might be some places across the U.S. and Virginia where the need for volunteers is critical, but, while Hanover County needs more volunteers, it is still meeting all its emergency response goals and other requirements.

Hanover County Fire and EMS uses paid personnel and volunteers. “Both are vital to make the system work. We’re a combination system of volunteer and career folks that provide both EMS and fire suppression and fire operations,” he said.

“What we try to achieve is a seamless transition between a person that is paid to do this work and the person that gives of their time as volunteers. And so when we come to your house, you can’t tell the difference — same level of qualification, same quality of care,” Baldwin said.

He said, “If we could figure a way to attract more people, and keep more people, that would really be the answer. We just haven’t figured that component out yet.”

The city of Richmond and Henrico County have professional firefighters, and all but two of Chesterfield County’s 24 fire stations — Enon and Wagstaff — are staffed by career personnel, according to the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association.

Hanover County, with 229 paid staff and 194 volunteers relies heavily on citizen firefighters and emergency medical services personnel like Baldwin, said Jethro Piland, chief of Hanover Fire-EMS. It is a problem, he said, getting enough volunteers to meet the county’s needs, and the shortage is getting increasingly worse.

“We have been experiencing over the last five years a 10% decline in volunteers every year, so it’s fairly significant,” Piland said.

He said the county has 189 career members assigned to the operational division who are trained for both firefighting and emergency medical services. Of the 194 volunteers, about 124 are firefighters and 70 are EMTs.

Volunteer firefighters in Hanover go through the same training and certifications as the paid staff, although for volunteers, classes are held on weeknights and weekends to accommodate the schedule of otherwise employed volunteers and their family needs, Piland said.

The department requires roughly 500 hours for firefighter training. Volunteers attend an eight-month academy held every Tuesday, every Thursday and every other Saturday with the exception of one 40-hour training module held on Saturdays and Sundays.

The county’s volunteer EMT academy is a 160-hour program run in accordance with state regulations. Members who complete this program receive an EMT Certificate, Piland said.

Hanover Fire-EMS also has a high school academy available through the regional Governor’s School for Career and Technical Advancement at Hanover High School. The high school firefighter program covers the same curriculum as the volunteer firefighter academy and receives the same certificates, Piland said.

“Our volunteers are fantastic folks. They are trained, and they provide the same level of service as our career folks and we will always have a home for them,” Piland said.

Piland said that in addition to societal changes, many volunteers become career firefighters as paid openings occur in Hanover and elsewhere. “As soon as we get volunteers and train them, they are being scooped up by the local fire departments which is good for them — and I’m very excited that they’re entering a 25-year career to serve the citizens of Virginia — but, man, it’s hard to refill them.”

Baldwin, who began serving as a volunteer as a 16-year-old in King William County, said many career firefighters in the county began as volunteers and some have risen to senior ranks.

“I think the reasons have changed over the years. I think it’s important to give back to the community. We’ve been very fortunate in what is provided to us, and I see it as a civic duty,” he said of why he volunteers.

The National Volunteer Fire Council reports that not only is the number of volunteers declining, but the volunteer forces are getting older. In the mid-1980s, 132,000 volunteers were under the age of 30 and today just 90,000. The number of volunteers over the age of 40, like Baldwin, has been steadily increasing over the past three decades from 164,000 in 1987 to 176,000 in 2017.

Brayden Mast, 18, is a newly trained firefighter at the Henry Volunteer Fire Station 6, located near Hanover High School where he took part in the emergency medical and firefighting program and where he recently graduated.

Mast said that while in high school he visited a fire station when he was 17 years old. “After my first day with them, the brotherhood, the family aspect of it, being treated as an individual who is equal to [others] in the department. It was an experience I hadn’t had anywhere else,” he said.

“I decided I wanted to move forward, get my yellow helmet and become a firefighter, not just an EMT, and from there on I’ve enjoyed every single second of it,” Mast said.

He said he would tell anyone considering volunteering: “If you are looking for a hands-on job, something where you can be involved in your community and help out every single day and do things that you wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else, the Hanover Fire Department’s for you.”

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