Volunteer fire departments across the country are looking for a few good men and women to ease an acute manpower shortage that worsens every year.
“In Kentucky we say it’s from Paducah to Pikeville, basically all over,” Chantz McPeek said of the firefighter shortage. He’s the regional trainer for the Kentucky Fire Commission and encounters the problem on a regular basis.
Volunteer fire departments are dealing with a double whammy of aging members who can no longer deal with the physical demands of firefighting, and the lack of young recruits to fill assume those duties.
“A lot of our officers right now are in the 50-70-year range and we’re not as physically able to do the job as we once did,” said Richard Bales, chief of the Keavy Fire Department. “We’ve not been able to get enough of these 20-30 -year old recruits. It takes a special person to run into a burning home when the rats and cockroaches are running from it.”
Bales and McPeek said the lack of young recruits reflects the busy lifestyles of today’s families, as well as shifts in job opportunities.
“In the last generation, there were many people who had jobs in their communities, whether it was farming or a family business,” McPeek said. “So even if they were working they were still available to answer fire calls. Now, most people travel out of their community to work.”
Year-round sports, increased school activities and both parents who work contribute to today’s hectic lifestyles.
“We didn’t have all these activities when we were growing up,” Bales said. “Now, if a young man has any free time he’s going to spend it with his family, instead of devoting those hours to becoming a volunteer fireman.”
To overcome the manpower shortage, the 12 volunteer fire departments in Laurel County rely on each other for help with a major fire. Mutual aid used to be called only when it was necessary, now it’s paged out almost immediately.
“If East Bernstadt has a structure fire, Crossroads Fire Department is automatically dispatched to respond with them,” said Bales, who also serves as vice president of the Laurel County Fire Alliance. “Lily and West Knox have a similar agreement.”
Numbers can also be deceiving, Bales noted, since fire departments may have 30 people on their roster, but only about 12 who are dependable on a regular basis.
The fire alliance set up a booth at the World Chicken Festival to recruit new members and to sell them on the benefits of joining their community fire department.
“We’re trying to raise our visibility and encourage people to give back to their community,” Bales said at the chicken festival booth. “We give them information and if someone expresses an interest, we steer them to the department where they live.”
Most of the Laurel County fire departments have junior programs where recruits as young as 15 can go out on fire calls, and can take entry into a fire when they are 18.
“We have them until right about time they graduate high school, then the girlfriends happen, college happens, marriage and children,” Bales said. “It’s hard sometimes to retain them after that because how busy life has become.”
Properly-staffed volunteer fire departments offer more benefits than just fire protection, Bales said, such as keeping home insurance rates lower and making businesses feel more secure.
“The fire department is the hub of the community,” he said. “Hopefully we can get some young, able bodies to join us.”