BURLINGTON — When you drive past the Kansasville Fire and Rescue station on Highway 11, the electronic sign often reads “Firefighters and EMTs needed. Apply Now!” Similar advertisements are seen nationwide, as full-time and volunteer fire departments alike struggle to fill their rosters.
The National Volunteer Firefighter Council found that, from 1984-2015, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has dropped by 12 percent. The volunteer firefighters still doing the job are getting older on average, too. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 70 percent of all fire departments are staffed by volunteers.
That’s why more than a dozen fire services organizations gathered at Gateway Technical College’s HERO Center, 380 McCanna Parkway, Burlington, on Saturday. Active firefighters, emergency medical technicians and chiefs fielded questions and connected with prospective recruits, hoping to draw more people into the field of firefighting.
Among the organizations that participated in Saturday’s event were fire departments from Kansasville, Union Grove, Burlington, Kenosha, Twin Lakes and Waterford. They’re all looking for more skilled people to take on the responsibility of being a firefighter.
“Gateway Technical College is partnering with fire departments in our district to recruit firefighters at all levels,” said Romana Groeschel, a firefighter instructor at Gateway, which oversees state-sanctioned fire and EMS training in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties.
Where have our firefighters gone?
Groeschel said that the shortage is a recent problem, caused by a handful of factors. One of them is simple: money.
For example, the Wind Lake Volunteer Fire Company used to be entirely comprised of volunteers, but its chief has been a paid position since September. The plan had been to promote a volunteer to the role of chief, according to WLVFC President Willy Ellertson, but nobody wanted the position until pay was offered. Only eight people ended up applying for the job.
Groeschel said that there was a surge of new recruits after 9/11, but that wave has long passed.
Ten years ago, the Kenosha Fire Department received 600 applications for two full-time openings, Groeschel said. Now, it’d be a surprise to get 100 applications, and most of those applicants will end up being ineligible anyway, for a variety of reasons including not meeting prerequisite requirements.
“There is a significant shortage in interest. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” she said. “(Many) volunteer fire departments used to function on farm families … but the farm families are going away.”
Part-time Firefighter Abbi Schroeder, 23, thinks another factor might be a “lack of work ethic” from people of her generation.
“You need commitment, but it’s a sporadic commitment,” said Schroeder, who works 24 hours a week at the City of Burlington Fire Department. “It’s not a consistent 9-to-5 job.”
Brandon Brody, a 39-year-old volunteer firefighter from Rochester, said that being a firefighter can place a significant strain on his home life.
“From a volunteer standpoint, sometimes you’re running out the door and leaving your family behind,” Brody said.
So then why does he do it?
“I’m trying to help the community, helping any way I can,” Brody said. “There’s a sense of satisfaction in knowing you can help a complete stranger without an expectation of thanks.”
Finding new recruits
Groeschel thinks that lackluster marketing in recent years may be partially to blame for the shortage. Not enough people have even considered becoming a firefighter, or an EMT, or both.
“You can come right out of high school and be making $45,000 or $50,000 a year,” Groeschel said. “We have a lot of us students who are starting to realize that this is an actual career path.”
Through Gateway, the HERO Center has started reaching out to high schools and is offering firefighting and EMT classes to teenagers. For those who take the classes, they have a head start on someone else who might be applying for the same job in firefighting. On many volunteer and paid-on-call departments, you can start serving at 18.
Students can take the beginning firefighting classes, in addition to learning the basics of driving a fire engine and being an EMT, before they graduate high school. Some schools (including Burlington High School) and fire departments will even offer to cover the costs of the classes, according to Groeschel. And even if the students choose not to pursue a career in firefighting, they’ll still be equipped with invaluable skills, potentially setting them up for other careers or being equipped to help in a crisis situation.
Classes are mainly offered at two locations: Gateway’s HERO Center, which is right next to Burlington High School, and the Kansasville Fire Dept. training grounds, 23730 Durand Ave.
“I’m trying to help the community, helping any way I can. There’s a sense of satisfaction in knowing you can help a complete stranger without an expectation of thanks.” Brandon Brody, Rochester Volunteer Fire Company firefighter