Who Will Rescue Rural America?
Volunteers are the lifeblood of rural America. Nationally, 72% of fire departments are all volunteers. It's even higher in rural states.
Many, like Lynn Kirschbaum, Glen Haven, Wisconsin, are farmers. Kirschbaum joined the fire department in this township of 480 in 1988. The photo above shows members of his team. "When I was recruited, we had 32," he says. "We're down to 22."
In July, the department gained its first recruit since Kirschbaum became fire chief in 1999: his 18-year-old son, Tyler.
Glen Haven isn't unusual. Between 1984 and 2006, the number of volunteer firefighters across the U.S. fell by 8%, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Nearly 50% of fire volunteers were age 40 or older in 2005, compared to 37% in 1987.
The rural all-volunteer fire and rescue department is an endangered institution. The problem began in the 1980s when the farm crisis uprooted the next crop of potential volunteers. Off-farm jobs also have cut the ranks of farmers available to come to the defense of friends and neighbors.
Today, more stringent state training mandates are igniting a new hot spot.
"When I started, there was little training required," Kirschbaum says. "Now firefighters need 60 hours. It's getting to be a larger problem, and it's driving young people away."
The situation also hits close to home for my community of Pilot Mound, Iowa, population 199. Sean Whalen breathed new life into the fire department when he moved here 15 years ago. He's funded a pumper and a tanker truck with USDA grants and local trust dollars.
But Whalen is concerned. Effective July 1, Iowa firefighters are required to complete 84 hours of specific training for structural firefighting. And 24 hours of annual training must be logged to conduct any firefighing activity.
No one can dispute that firefighting is dangerous, and most agree that training is essential. About 50 people recently attended a meeting to discuss forming a recruitment committee for the Pilot Mound fire department and more cross-training with other departments.
In Iowa, the state pays for required training. Human capital – not money – is the critical shortfall. What can be done?
Some states, such as Colorado and Nebraska, have laws to prevent employers from punishing workers who leave to respond to fire and rescue emergencies.
Other departments use a cadet or junior program to recruit high school students. (They can't enter burning buildings.)
In southwest Wisconsin, a regional technical rescue team of volunteers was formed in 2003 to assist local departments with complex fire and rescue calls.