Fire department volunteers in short supply nationwide

Time constraints, funding are biggest hurdles

Volunteer firefighter challenges

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Since the mid-’80s, the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide dropped 11 percent. 

Mid-Missouri has not been immune from the problem.

ABC 17 News found that the drop in volunteer firefighters is affecting both response times and the safety of small communities.

Mike Ely has been a volunteer firefighter at the Linn Fire Protection District for nearly 25 years.

“I would say probably 50 percent or more of our firefighters have, um, multiple part-time jobs, or a full-time job, plus some side work,” Ely said.

Ely said jobs that pay and raising a family take priority over donating time to make it to the required training and calls.

“I try to make it a point to not leave kids’ ballgames and family events,” Ely said.  “Again, it makes it hard to find time because with three boys being involved in sports and things, getting away and finding time to get to calls and training is difficult.”

The man who was once 15-year-old boy with a dream of being a firefighter found out that everyday life can make doing what he loves a challenge.  He said it's also an issue with other volunteers in the department.

“You know we have struggled, 3 o'clock in the afternoon is a good example,” Ely said. “You have people that are still at work that haven't come home yet.  You have people you know that are working second shift that are coming to work and that time-frame and you know they might get paged out two or three times and no one can come.”

According to statistics from the American Red Cross, people have only about two minutes to get out of a burning building before being trapped inside.

But Ely said sometimes it takes 10 to 25 minutes for that extra help to get there. 

“We've gone to fires with three guys, two guys,” Ely said. “One guy runnin' the truck, another not going into the building, but doing as much as you can from outside until other help gets there.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of 911 calls for service outpaced the number of volunteer firefighters from 2011 to 2015.  During that time the number of volunteer firefighters went up 7 percent compared to the 10 percent increase in 911 calls.

“The call volume we've seen increase across the country,” said Gale Blomenkamp, an assistant chief with the Boone County Fire Protection District.  “When I was a kid growing up you didn't call 911 unless it was a life or death emergency.”

Blomenkamp said his department is one of the lucky ones that does not struggle to find volunteers. He said having a major state university and two colleges in Columbia gives the district a larger pool of potential volunteers.

Jack Brade, the West Regional fire chief in Cole County, said his department is always asking for applications, but they sometimes turn people away.  He said right now they have around 37 volunteers and a sense of community is what helps fill their positions.

“It's hard finding those people who want to commit ... give up that much, you know without expecting anything in return. You know the ones we have coming in here and sign up, they'll do anything for ya,” said Brade.

The National Volunteer Fire Council said 70 percent of all firefighters are volunteers.  The report also said because of time donated it saves the United States $46.9 billion each year.

“You know we give them a little bit for the calls they make and the training they make, but it doesn't even cover their gas money.  But, they do it.  They are the core,” Brade said.

Mid-Missouri isn't the only area seeing problems with the number of volunteer firefighters.  A report was released in November declaring a public safety crisis in the state of Pennsylvania because of the lack of volunteers.

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