The number of volunteer firefighters around the country is at the lowest level in more than 20 years. But, Wisconsin is bucking the trend.
The latest figures released by the National Fire Protection Association show a little over 768,000 volunteers in 2010. That’s the lowest number since 1991. Philip Stittleburg is the fire chief in LaFarge, Wisconsin. He’s also the current president of the National Volunteer Fire Council. Stittleburg says the economy is partially to blame, "In a down economy people have less what I call discretionary time because they are taking second jobs, they are working overtime, and in households where only one member was employed outside the home we are now seeing both take jobs outside the home which means the homemaking duties are being shared."
Stittleburg says a rapidly aging workforce is also a factor. It’s not a crisis yet but recruiting and retaining volunteers is a growing concern. But here in Wisconsin, Stittleburg says numbers have remained relatively stable. He says geography is one reason, "When you get into the more rural parts of Wisconsin, you’re always going to rely on that volunteer component to provide the service and I think Wisconsin's rural nature contributes more to volunteerism and the volunteer numbers than in other states."
A state-sponsored retirement program has also proven to be an effective recruiting tool.
To ensure a steady supply of volunteers, Stittleburg says the fire service has to do a better job of reaching out to young adults using social media. He says departments also need to transfer responsibilities like education from firefighters to other volunteers.