Here’s my latest for Stay Thirsty, the quarterly magazine from the publisher of my Rick Crane Noir novels.
By Mark Yost
If you want to see one of the most vexing problems facing America today, go to Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The small community about an hour west of Philadelphia is short of volunteer firefighters. And it’s not alone.
A lack of volunteers is a nagging issue for small fire departments in little towns, villages and rural hamlets from New York to California.
The reasons are many.
Coatesville Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dobson told the local paper that in the past, volunteers who worked in town were allowed to leave their jobs to respond to calls. Now, fewer employers are willing to do that.
Battalion Chief Craig Patton said increased training standards for volunteers – up to 200 hours depending on state standards before they can respond to a fire – have also cut down on volunteering. Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that today volunteer fire departments do more than just put out fires. Emergency medical calls account for some 90% of fire department calls today, at both volunteer and full-time career departments. Because of this, most fire departments require their members to be at least EMTs; some require volunteers to be paramedics, another certification that takes thousands of hours. Many residents not only don’t have the desire to volunteer, they don’t have the time.
“Hard schedules, people don’t have time, people get disconnected from the community – you know folks are gone during the day,” said Mark Riedl of the Albany, Wisconsin, fire department. “We’re always welcoming volunteers, we’re always welcoming people that can put in more time, or put in whatever time they have.”
(credit: Courtesy of Don Champley)
But at a recent drill, only about six firefighters showed up.
“We got guys who we haven’t seen in two years,” Riedl said.
“You just can’t find the young men and women you need to join,” said Albany Chief Danny Mueller.
Out in Smith Valley, Montana, Chief D.C. Haas has only eight volunteers; he could use 20. In places like Fonda, N.Y., near Syracuse, the volunteer fire department closed after more than 100 years of service to the tiny Upstate New York community. Fire service was taken over by a nearby paid department.
A recent FEMA study summed up the problem nicely, noting a “lack of time, apathy, and excessive requirements,” for the estimated 15% drop in volunteer firefighters nationwide.
“The emergency services are the most demanding of volunteer activities today. The physical and time demands associated with training; responding to incidents; maintaining facilities, apparatus, and equipment; fundraising; and administering a nonprofit corporation are grueling if not managed properly.”
But mostly, these small fire departments are plagued by a drop off in volunteers. People like the Kluchka family.
Jerry Kluchka, 59, and his three sons – Tim, 29, Matt, 24, and Russell, 22 – are volunteers at the Lake Bluff Fire Department, the last all-volunteer fire department on Chicago’s suburban North Shore. The Kluchkas are also symbolic of the multi-generational families that used to fill the ranks of volunteer fire departments across the country. Today, they’re a dying breed. What’s more, it’s a tradition that’s not being passed on to future generations like it once was.
“When I was growing up, we’d always have the radio test that would go out every night,” said Tim, the oldest brother. “That’s what first sparked my interest in the fire department.”
The Kluchkas grew up a block away from the Lake Bluff firehouse and they’d ride their bikes to the station and watch the fire trucks go out on a call. As soon as they were old enough – or were allowed – they started hanging out there.
“I was in sixth grade,” Tim said. “I’d go to the firehouse on drill nights and help wash the trucks or whatever they’d let me do.”
He’d also hang out after training and watch the guys play horseshoes out back.
“That’s where I learned about the camaraderie that’s unique to the fire service,” Tim said. “That special bond was what got me going.”
His first fire was a basement fire, one of the most dangerous kind because firefighters have to fight their way down to get to the seed of the fire to extinguish it.
“I’d been training with the department for awhile,” he said. “I packed up and just went in. And I got into a little bit of trouble because I was only 16.”
Most state laws don’t allow young firefighters to go into real fires until their 18.
For all its history and tradition – like the Fourth of July parade that’s been happening for more than 100 years, led by the fire department – Lake Bluff isn’t any different than other volunteer departments struggling to recruit volunteers.
“When I started on the department, we had an active staff of at least 20 guys out of a roster of 45. We still have a roster of 45, but at the same time the core group you can count on to go on calls is maybe seven to 10 guys. That’s about all there is.”
Part of the reason in the decline in volunteers is changing demographics, Kluchka said. Lake Bluff is a bucolic little town, nestled on Lake Michigan, and is often compared with a New England fishing village. That charm and small-town feel has attracted more city-dwellers over the years.
“Ours was the last house that sold for under $100,000 in Lake Bluff,” he said. “Now the average house in Lake Bluff is $500,000.”
That has brought in white-collar residents who are either too busy or don’t have the blue-collar skills needed to be a firefighter.
“Because of the economy, some guys are working so hard to keep what they have and spend time with their families that they can’t volunteer.”
But for many, Kluchka said, “people’s heart and soul just isn’t into it anymore.”
The lack of volunteers has caused many fire departments that used to be all volunteers to go to part-time paid staffs. That’s what happened at Knollwood, another longtime volunteer department that’s next to Lake Bluff. Today, Knollwood has paid staff on duty for at least part of every day. The same thing happened in Antioch, another nearby department where Don Champley started in 1987.
Like Tim Kluchka, Champley used to ride his bike to the firehouse as a kid and watch the volunteers go out on calls. When he became old enough, he joined the department.
“Back then, we had about 60 active members,” Champley said. “The majority either lived in the village and were business owners or worked for businesses that allowed them to go on calls during work. The rest were public works employees, who were also allowed to go on calls.”
Because of that attitude, “we always had ample people to respond to calls.”
Then some of the volunteers moved away, got jobs outside of town, and local employers stopped letting their workers leave in the middle of the day to respond to calls.
“As the number of calls went up, employers just basically stopped letting people go on calls. That was the downfall of a lot of volunteer departments.”
As a result, Antioch has had to go to a paid-on-call staff, mostly full-time firefighters who work there on their days off. Today, Antioch has at least 8 staffers on duty to respond to both fire and EMS calls, although volunteers – most of whom are paid a small stipend – come in for fires and other incidents that require more manpower.
Champley also notes another problem that is roiling departments across the country: volunteer fire departments have been a stepping-stone to full-time jobs. That’s what happened to Champley, who eventually got hired at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. It’s also what happened to the Kluchkas.
While the Kluchka brothers still respond to calls in Lake Bluff, they sometimes can’t because they’re all full-time firefighters/paramedics on the North Shore: Tim in North Chicago, Matt in Lake Forest, and Russell in Highwood.
And even those departments that pay part-time wages to volunteers struggle with basic economics.
“Our pay is on the lower end of what some other part-time or paid-on-premise departments are paying,” Champley said. “We’ve lost some people to other departments because for some of the guys it’s all about the money. It’s not supposed to be that way, it’s supposed to be about community service.”
Indeed, Champley, the Kluchkas and others said that today, if people are going to give up their time, they want to be compensated for it.
“That wasn’t the attitude in the late 1980s,” said Champley. “If there was a fire, 30 people would show up. Now, we get maybe enough guys to staff a reserve engine.”