Volunteer Firefighters: Small Town Saviors

Burning through limited resources, these selfless citizens are fighting a problem that their extensive training hasn’t prepared them to contain.


Of the more than 1 million firefighters serving the United States, 65 percent are volunteers, and nearly 95 percent of those volunteers protect rural communities with fewer than 25,000 people.

Volunteer firefighters, as the name implies, are unpaid, yet their training requirements are similar to career firefighters. This includes hundreds of hours of training and continuing education in hazardous materials handling, EMT training, and confined space training. The paperwork and compliance testing are just as relentless. While all firefighters serve their communities, volunteers do so for free, in their spare time.

A Conflagration of Challenges

Rural volunteer fire departments face many obstacles, with one of the most obvious being funding. City departments are funded by tax dollars, the largest portion of which are property taxes. While no one likes to pay high property taxes, they do provide much-needed funding for valuable services, such as firefighting. Rural communities aren’t taxed at the same mill levy rate as urban areas, and, as a result, they’re unable to provide the same level of funding.

Grants are a major source of funding for rural volunteer fire departments. Darren Grow, a second-generation volunteer firefighter and the current chief of the fire department in Atlanta, Kansas, estimates that in the 20 years he’s been involved, his fire department has written and received nearly $1 million in grants. Anyone who’s ever compiled a grant application can testify that doing so takes meticulous attention to detail, and writing grant requests for fire department funding means that every piece of paperwork has to be in order and compliant.

A large portion of the Atlanta department’s $60,000 annual budget goes to fuel. Grow estimates that they receive 100 to 120 calls a year. About half of those are medical emergencies, and the remainder are grass fires. In drought years, the number of calls can double. Additionally, the Atlanta department’s services extend beyond its area. For example, in 2016, its volunteers were called to assist in battling the extensive Medicine Lodge grass fire more than 100 miles away.

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