RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — There’s a shortage of volunteer firefighters across the country and it’s hitting hard in Virginia.
The U.S. Fire Administration reports 54% of all firefighters across the country are volunteers but, in the Commonwealth, that number is closer to 70%, according to the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). A national registry also shows more than two thirds of the state’s 552 departments rely on volunteers.
In a strategic plan released in 2018, the VDFP projected there would be a decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters they trained in the following years.
While the number of professional firefighters has held steady, national data shows there’s been a 10 percent decline in the number of volunteer firefighters since 1985.
Virginia Fire Chiefs Association (VFCA) Executive Director Chris Eudailey warns the shortage will put more stress on departments that are already stretched too thin, especially in rural areas.
“It could mean that a fire truck may not arrive at your home at all. It may arrive somewhat delayed,” Eudailey said.
The VFCA is trying to turn that trend around with a new PSA aimed at spurring recruitment of new volunteers. Eudailey said a similar campaign in North Carolina resulted in 700 interest cards and they are hoping to see similar results.
“We hope this video will cause people to reflect and think about their community and to see if they can make an investment of their own personal time,” Eudailey said. “We have an opportunity to go and help people on what very well may be the worst day of their life.”
But a survey performed by George Mason University in 2015 suggests that the issues facing volunteer departments may not be so easy to solve.
The survey responses – collected from firefighters at stations across the Commonwealth — suggest that the majority of firefighters were recruited through word of mouth, referrals, and local community events. Just 23% of volunteers were recruited through web info, and 13% saw a TV ad.
The biggest factor driving low volunteer numbers was attrition — 64% of volunteer respondents said others in their station had left because of the large time commitment. That’s compared to just 15% of professional firefighters who said the same thing.
Eudailey said growing workforce demands appears to be part of the problem, as parents increasingly have to work two jobs to make ends meet.
Thomas Williams has been working at volunteer fire departments in Chesterfield for four decades. He is still serving today at the Wagstaff Circle Volunteer Fire Department, even though medical issues mean he can’t get on the truck anymore.
“I just love it. I really do. It’s just knowing that you’re here to help the community and being proud of it,” Williams said.
Williams said increased training requirements in some localities seem to be a deterrent for some people. In Chesterfield, volunteers have to go through EMT training to prepare for an increasing share of medical calls.
That said, Williams is urging members of his community to step up.
“Someone has got to be there to help and we can train you to help,” Williams said.
Those interested in becoming a volunteer are encouraged to reach out to the department they’re interested in or visit this website.