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.
Grow is able to keep some of the department’s expenses at bay by doing the majority of the mechanical work on the trucks himself. Most of the department’s trucks are repurposed military surplus, and Grow is usually able to build, tweak, and fix whatever needs fixing. He likes the challenge, and it’s rewarding to him to see something he built rumbling up and down the road doing the job it was created to do.
Another challenge volunteer fire departments face is recruitment. Everyone expects the fire truck to come when they dial 911, but fewer people these days are willing to go for a ride on that truck. When people move to the country for its advantages, such as lower tax rates, small towns can become little more than bedroom communities for people who work in nearby cities. With the number of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people decreasing across the U.S., it seems residents expect the same level of service, but aren’t as interested in stepping up themselves.
The employers of volunteer firefighters need to be committed to their community as well. “When we’re called, we go,” says Grow. That requires an employer that’s invested enough in the community to allow employees to leave their jobs abruptly, knowing they may not return that day. Three of the volunteer firefighters in Atlanta work at the local co-op managed by Grow. The job requires them each to carry a radio and pager at all times. And often, their own livelihoods are put on hold while they perform their volunteer services. One advantage in Atlanta is that the fire station is just one block from the co-op, reducing the time needed to get to the station and go out on a call. The Atlanta department covers nearly 180 square miles of rural area, so every moment saved helps the volunteer firefighters cover that distance faster.
Discipline can be another challenge. The vast majority of volunteer firefighters are upstanding people, but on rare occasions, problems do arise. It can be challenging to instill a sense of responsibility in those who don’t have the usual punishments inherent in employment, such as reduced pay or a poor evaluation. Considering that it costs around $3,000 to equip a firefighter with the minimal essentials to do the job — radio, coat, pants, and boots — lack of discipline can certainly come at a price.
Who, If Not You?
If you live in a rural area and you’ve ever aspired to be a firefighter, but life took you in a different direction, it’s not too late. Even if serving as a firefighter isn’t an option, there are lots of other ways to help support your rural fire department. Contributing to fundraising, auxiliaries, and kids’ groups, such as the National Junior Firefighter Program, are all ways to help out. Gender isn’t a barrier, either. An estimated 9 percent of volunteer firefighters are women. In one rare case, the volunteer fire department in Frametown, West Virginia, has more women than men.
The average age of volunteer firefighters is increasing. The largest percentage of firefighters serving the smallest communities is 50 years or older. As this age group begins to retire, they’ll need to be replaced with younger volunteers. When asked why they serve, the volunteers at the Atlanta co-op say they enjoy the work, but what truly drives them is serving their community. As Grow asked, “If we don’t volunteer, who will?”
By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. Between the two places, she’s learned to manage all sorts of livestock.