Volunteer firefighters difficult to attract

Where firefighters live

Where area firefighters, including volunteers, reside as of June 2012, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s Division of Public Safety:



















The number of volunteer firefighters in Ohio dropped by 6.5 percent from 2009 to 2011, a trend experts attribute to stricter training requirements and a lagging economy that makes it a challenge to recruit.

Many area fire departments rely heavily on volunteers to help with emergencies and to save their governments money. The state had 14,911 volunteers last year, down from 15,949 in 2009, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s Division of EMS.

“Time is a factor. Requirements to become a firefighter have been increasing and call volume has been increasing,” said Kimberly Quiros, director of communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council in Maryland.

“With the economy, often times people may have to commute longer distances (to get to and from their paying jobs) or hold on to several different jobs.”

“It’s hard to balance a full-time job, working somewhere and then personal commitments and all the requirements it takes to keep your certification,” said Butler Township Fire Chief Dan Alig. “Would you rather volunteer for free or go get a job elsewhere that pays?”

Butler Township Fire Department in Montgomery County does not have a volunteer program, but does have six full-time firefighters and 30 part-timers.

“We’re trying to get a (volunteer) program up and running this year,” Alig said, adding that his department wants to provide an opportunity for those who are recently certified to get experience in fire and EMS service.

The number of volunteer firefighters has dropped by 14 percent nationwide since 1984, but volunteers still make up about 70 percent of firefighters in the United States, according to the nonprofit fire council.

Despite the decrease in Ohio, the number of Level 1 firefighters increased to 4,455 in 2011 from 3,781 in 2009, according to the ODPS 2011 Annual Report. Level 2 firefighters increased by nearly 9 percent — to 23,391.

Riverside Fire Lt. Shon Smith is also a part-time firefighter for the Brookville Fire Department, which relies on the services of approximately 20 volunteers, including high school students.

“We try to find ways to first bring them in and then keep them,” Smith said of the volunteers, who he said are hard to recruit because some “people don’t won’t to work for pennies on the dollar.”

Brookville’s volunteers receive about $2 an hour while they are on call at home or at the fire station. Smith said he usually receives a stipend of up to $250 a year.

A ‘life experience’

Volunteer Steve Knopp is a vice president and general manager for Acosta and volunteers with Sugarcreek Township Fire Department in Greene County.

“It seemed like the right thing to do, to step up and help out,” Knopp said of why he became a volunteer. “It’s a life experience that I don’t think can be duplicated.”

Knopp, who is an incident safety director, stays on call at home and will get a page if he is needed. It took him four months to finish his training and he is paid $13 a month and $20 per call.

“Volunteers are very important. They save cities an immense amount of money. They don’t have to pay them wages or benefits,” said Rodger Sansom, secretary treasurer for the Ohio State Firefighters Association in Mogadore. The OSFFA represents 575 fire departments and approximately 19,000 firefighters, some of whom are volunteers.

There was a time when the Sugarcreek Township Fire Department had dozens of volunteer firefighters. Today, there are 16, and most don’t live in the township.

Sugarcreek is among several departments in the state that have been awarded a $1.2 million Safer Grant from the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association, which focuses on volunteer retention and recruitment.

“It is tremendously hard to get people to volunteer because of the amount of training there is now,” Sugarcreek Twp. Fire Chief Randy Pavlak said.

He added that the demand for continuing education for volunteers also plays a part in the decline.

Firefighters must be 18, regardless of whether the position is volunteer or not, according to the ODPS. Volunteers have to have at least 36 hours of training. There are two different types of firefighters. Those at Level 1 status have had 136 hours of training and those at Level 2 have had 256 hours of training. Full-time firefighters are usually Level 2 certified and some volunteer firefighters can be at Level 1.

Those seeking to be volunteers or certified firefighters must successfully complete the appropriate training through one of the state’s chartered fire training programs.

In 2009, ODPS started requiring that volunteer firefighters seek continuing education credits and had to renew their certification every three years, according to Geoff Dutton, ODPS media relations director. These new requirements help the state keep a more accurate record of who is active in fire and EMS service. Plus it helps the volunteers raise their level of preparedness.

“A lot of people are not willing to give that amount of time without being compensated,” Sansom said.

That is not the case in village of Covington in Miami County. The fire department’s volunteer roster is full and there are names on the waiting list, according to Chief Bill Westfall. The department has approximately 30 volunteers who are not compensated for their runs.

“A number of our firefighters are second and third generation. They grew up in the community and that’s their way of giving back,” Westfall said of his volunteers.

Some younger volunteers are also looking for experience because they would like to be professional firefighters.

College volunteers

Volunteer firefighters are a part of an aging population. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the amount of firefighters age 50 and up nearly doubled from 1987 to 2010 in communities with populations less than 2,500.

But that is not the case everywhere. Most of the volunteers for Oxford Fire Department in Butler County are Miami University students who are interested in going into the medical field.

When school lets out, the number of volunteers decreases, leaving the department to rely on mutual aid from other jurisdictions, according to Oxford Fire Chief John Detherage, the only full-time firefighter in his department. Oxford has approximately 40 part-time firefighters and up to 15 volunteers.

“The biggest problem is that there is not a lot of interest in volunteering,” he said. “This community is basically college students and retired people. There is not a big segment in between.”

Oxford tries to get the word out about volunteering by including information in the university’s student orientation packets, Detherage said.

Oxford’s volunteers have the option of staying at the station or responding from home. They are paid up to $14 per hour per run. The city usually gets up to 2,400 calls a year for fire and EMS runs.

Community members can help their fire department without being a firefighters, Quiros said. They can volunteer to do administrative work, station maintenance or take on non-operational roles.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2414 or kelli.wynn@coxinc.com.

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