In the event of an emergency involving a fire, many Americans would receive help from someone volunteering their time.
The U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, maintains the National Fire Department Registry. This list has 27,184 fire departments registered, 91% of all fire departments in the United States (registration is non-compulsory).
Of those registered, 70.2% are volunteer departments while 15.6% are mostly volunteer. Of the remaining fire departments, 9.3% are career while 4.9% are mostly career. Of the of 1,063,900 active firefighters, 34% were career firefighters while 53% were volunteer firefighters and 12% were paid per call firefighters.
In New York state, 90.2% of all fire departments are volunteer while 3.9% are mostly volunteer. In addition, 4.2% are career fire departments while 1.7% are mostly career.
What all this means is that numerous Americans depend upon volunteer firefighters to keep them and their property safe. The challenge to these departments, then, is to maintain enough personnel to adequately protect their service areas.
However, this has been easier said than done over the past few years. In her State of the State address delivered Jan. 10, Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul spoke of the concerning drop in volunteer firefighters.
“Volunteer firefighter numbers have been declining since 1998,” Hochul said in her speech. “There has been an increase in the number of service calls despite this decline. Between 1997 and 2020, there was a 29% increase in fire incidents in New York. This combination has led to major resource strains on fire departments, which have subsequently created an increase in mutual aid calls, in which the ‘home’ department must call on a neighboring department to help, straining the resources of not only our volunteer departments but also our career fire departments.”
Hochul proposed measures designed to help volunteer fire departments recruit more members.
“The first was legislation to allow communities to pay modest compensation to eligible volunteer firefighters,” according to a story published Saturday by the Watertown Daily Times. “The second was to create a fund to pay a stipend to volunteer firefighters upon completion of certain foundational training or certification required for core responsibilities. The stipend would also decrease ‘some trainees’ wage losses while training.’”
Fire officials throughout Northern New York supported the proposals made by Hochul. Any effort made to increase the ranks of volunteer firefighters is worthwhile. But others need to be involved to make this succeed.
One likely obstacle to keeping a certain number of volunteer firefighters is the time doing this work requires. Many people’s wages haven’t kept pace with inflation, so some of them need to take on second jobs to make ends meet. This doesn’t leave much time available for serving as a volunteer firefighter, as essential a job as this is.
Offering a modest stipend to volunteer firefighters is a good idea. But with municipal budgets strained, it’s uncertain how many towns and villages have the means to enact this measure.
And creating a fund to provide a stipend for volunteer firefighters who complete a certain amount of training is good. But the state needs to go a step further here to mitigate issues that may prevent volunteers from completing the necessary training.
New sources of revenue on all levels of government need to be identified to push up the number of volunteer firefighters. A continuing loss of these fire service personnel would imperil many New Yorkers, and that’s unacceptable.
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