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Calls to volunteer fire departments are at a high but they have few first responders

Across most of the United States, if your house catches on fire the first responders will likely be volunteers. But fewer volunteers are answering triple the number of calls they did decades ago, and the volunteers who do show up tend to be older, according to National Volunteer Fire Council. Some volunteer departments were already stretched dangerously thin, and then along came the pandemic.

When an enormous wildfire raced toward his hometown on the high plains of Paradise, Kansas, last December, volunteer fire chief Quentin Maupin put down his farm work and sprang to action, even though that meant taking the department's 18,000-lb pumper truck out alone.

"Normally our policy is you need two people on a truck, so if you have trouble, the other person can help out here or there," Maupin says. "But that day there wasn't anybody here. And I knew we just gotta get a truck out there right now."

Maupin nearly died hours later when a wall of flames twice the height of telephone poles suddenly engulphed the truck. Fire destroyed the truck's break lines and melted its flashing lights. Maupin escaped to check on his family in the path of the blaze, and went back to work fighting the fire.

Quentin Maupin stands on the spot where his firetruck was overcome by a 60-80 foot wall of flame in the Dec.15 Kansas wildfires.
/ Frank Morris
Frank Morris
Quentin Maupin stands on the spot where his firetruck was overcome by a 60-80 foot wall of flame in the Dec.15 Kansas wildfires.

The lack of people, especially youth in rural Kansas makes it challenging to recruit volunteer fire fighters

This was Dec. 15, 2021, a day when wildfires raged across much of western Kansas. All the departments in the area were mobilized against the inferno, but Maupin says there weren't nearly enough volunteers.

"'It's rural Kansas and there just isn't that many people out here anymore and, and young people, that's the other thing."

Maupin says it's hard to make a living here, many work 40 or 50 miles from home. Around the country volunteer fire departments have seen staff dwindle as demand for service climbs. The National Volunteer Fire Council's most recent count shows a 17% drop in the number volunteer fire fighters since 1984. But calls for service have more than tripled in that time, and they're more complex.

"It used to be pretty simple. If you had a, a crime going on, you call the police. If there was fire, you'd call the fire department, but fire department now does everything," says Eric Bernard director of Volunteer Fire and Rescue operations in Montgomery County, Md., where 1,500 volunteers work alongside some 1,200 career firefighters and paramedics. "We call it all hazards. So hazardous materials to electrical, water issues, a tree on a house," Bernard says.

Bernard says there's a recent hazard for firefighters too, COVID-19. Bernard says Rockville deputy volunteer fire chief Scott Emmons helped evacuate injured police officers from the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 last year. A couple of weeks later he tested positive for COVID-19, and then he died.

"We lost a 30-year active chief officer who was 48 years old, that served at the Capitol. That was devastating. We had to put on a departmental funeral to say goodbye to a 48-year-old. That's what COVID did to us," Bernard says.

The pandemic is hitting volunteer fire department budgets too, and costing lives

And that's not uncommon. The National Volunteer Fire Council says COVID-19 has killed about 100 volunteer fire fighters, including many who contracted the disease on emergency calls.

The pandemic's also hitting volunteer fire department budgets, according to Fire chief Jennifer Williams in rural Chickasaw County, Mississippi.

"Typical volunteer fundraising activities you know, you sell plates or you have a luncheon. Well, you really can't do that with COVID. People don't wanna gather," Williams says.

The fundraising she's talking about isn't for extras. Some departments rely on events, selling food, and asking for donations at intersections to buy essential safety equipment, hydraulic extraction tools, for instance, the kind used to pry open wrecked vehicles to rescue victims. Williams says the closest department with a so-called "jaws of life" is a good 15 minutes away.

Keith Koelling is 62 and still fighting fires. He says he worked 40 hours straight on a recent fire, only to find out he had COVID-19 at the time. He's standing next to a 26-year-old fire truck.
/ Frank Morris
Frank Morris
Keith Koelling is 62 and still fighting fires. He says he worked 40 hours straight on a recent fire, only to find out he had COVID-19 at the time. He's standing next to a 26-year-old fire truck.

"And if you're trapped in a car, you don't have 15 to 20 minutes," Williams says. "But, we don't have extrication tools. We can't afford extrication tools. A set is about $18,000. We don't have $18,000 to spend."

Williams is having trouble just replacing worn out firehoses and protective clothing. That makes fighting fires even more dangerous, and it doesn't do much for recruitment or retention.

Many volunteer fire fighters are past age 50 and the grueling work takes a toll on them

And it's not just that fewer fire fighters are responding to more calls. The age of those volunteers is trending older. The National Volunteer Fire Council says that in small town volunteer fire departments, more than a third of fire fighters are over the age of 50.

Back in western Kansas, farmer and rancher Keith Koelling serves as district fire chief for the Natoma Volunteer Fire Department. Koelling is 62 and says that the hellish wildfire in December pushed him to the brink.

"I went right at 40 hours straight. Went to sleep for about four hours. And then I was back up and went for another 15," says Koelling, standing in the fire station. "Come to find I had COVID at the same time. I hit a brick wall. I mean, I just shut down. I'm too old for that."

Some volunteer fire departments have figured out how to do more with less. It's a formula that generally involves constant recruitment, and aggressive public relations. Others struggle to do more with less, a formula stretching the volunteers who do show up increasingly thin.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.