In every age, wherever people have built communities, the danger of fire has loomed on the periphery. Calm summer evenings and quiet wintry nights have been spliced by the sound of a fire station alarm. Men and women from all walks of life have scrambled to the call, harnessing equipment and mustering courage to rush to the aid of those in need. And the majority of those men and women are volunteers. Volunteers staffed the first fire companies in the U.S., and not much has changed … except their numbers.
In Forsyth County, the volunteer firefighter shortage has reached a critical emergency state. Every four days in North Carolina, a life is lost to fire. That’s one person gone every week or less.
Who is next? Who will we lose this week?
We’re taking action. The North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs (NCAFC) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) launched a campaign with 12 North Carolina counties, including Forsyth County, to boost volunteer firefighter recruitment. To support our vital efforts, the NCAFC obtained a SAFER grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Volunteers make up the largest part of the fire service in our state. According to FEMA, 72% of North Carolina firefighters are volunteers, and 90% of departments are all or mostly volunteer. North Carolina fire departments have lost an average of 600 firefighters every year since 2016; nationally, this is an epidemic.
Our strategy includes a combination of traditional methods of recruitment along with using advancing technology to pinpoint with high accuracy the communities likely to have recruit candidates. We’re offering leadership workshops aimed at improving retention. We are also strategizing new ways to approach this problem, from policy changes in government to finding methods to encourage and reward volunteers for their critical work. Our team is advocating for employers who allow volunteers to take time to help their communities or who embark on a journey to pursue a firefighting career.
What are the stark effects of this volunteer shortage? Fewer volunteers create the need for us to call on other departments outside our district to assist. This strains other departments and leaves fewer firefighters to respond if a fire breaks out elsewhere.
We are clear on many of the obstacles to recruitment; it’s hard to get volunteers because they’re working a tough job with no pay. Sometimes there’s no clear path to a career in firefighting, and a fast-paced, hectic life doesn’t always translate to a second career as a volunteer firefighter.
And while the recruitment campaign is showing progress, we’re not out of the woods yet. We hope to connect with non-traditional candidates, regardless of age, gender, race or current skill set, to help find them a place. We beckon entire families to volunteer, so when the alarm rings, not just mom or dad rushes out, but the whole family has a role to play. We’re looking for administrative and support volunteers, people who are instrumental in the survival of our department.
Here in Forsyth County, you can be part of the solution — as a volunteer, an advocate, a neighbor helping your neighbor. Anyone, from grandparents and teachers to college students and mechanics, can play a role.
Since our country’s foundation, volunteers have banded together to keep us safe from the hazards of fire. It is probably one of our most iconic American traits, to rush to the aid of our fellow man — a tradition and a vital need that my colleagues and I are determined to see survive.
Please join us.
Richard “R.J.” Sterenczak is lieutenant of the Lewisville Fire Department. Andy Marshall is chief of the Rural Hall Fire Department. Tracy Mosley, program manager of the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs, endorsed this message.