Volunteer fire departments need assistance with stations, staffing and equipment

Volunteer fire departments need assistance with stations, staffing and equipment
© AP Photo/LM Otero

America’s volunteer fire service, comprising 745,000 firefighters serving in 26,686 fire departments across the nation, faces significant challenges. Aging fire station infrastructure, staffing, and equipment and apparatus replacement are among the most acute problems facing America’s fire service in general, and volunteers in particular.

Forty-three percent of fire stations in the United States are at least 40 years old, with an estimated $70 billion to 100 billion cost to replace. Most of the fire stations more than 40 years old are in smaller communities that are typically served by volunteer responders. Sixty-one percent of fire stations in communities with populations of 9,999 or fewer residents are more than 40 years old with an estimated total replacement cost of $42.5 billion.

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Fire stations built before 1981 are more likely to have problems that cannot be addressed through repair and maintenance alone. Among the most common issues with older fire stations are lack of exhaust emission control, lack of backup power, lack of separate facilities for female personnel and need for mold remediation.

Congress can help address this problem by including funding in the reconciliation package currently under debate. The good news is that there is funding for fire station construction in the initial drafts of both the House and Senate reconciliation packages. As Congress negotiates a final reconciliation bill, it should make sure that funding for fire station construction remains intact.

Volunteers make up 67 percent of our nation’s fire service, protecting communities from hazards of all kinds. Small and rural communities are especially dependent on volunteers to provide emergency services. The services donated annually by volunteer firefighters in the U.S. are worth approximately $46.7 billion. Without those donated services, many communities would be unable to provide emergency services protection at all while others would be forced to raise taxes to pay salaries and benefits for full- or part-time staff.

Unfortunately, emergency services agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the next generation of volunteers. Since 2015, the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States has declined by approximately 16 percent. At the same time, in small communities where volunteer firefighters are nearly ubiquitous, more than 30 percent of firefighters are 50 years of age or older, up from 18 percent in 2000.

In addition to staffing, lack of up-to-date equipment, training and apparatus are significant challenges for the volunteer fire service. National fire service needs assessment studies consistently show that agencies serving small communities lack up-to-date equipment and training by wide margins compared with fire departments serving larger, more densely populated communities.

The problem comes down to a lack of resources at the local level, where a majority of fire department funding comes from. Volunteers tend to serve in rural communities with smaller tax bases to support them. The cost of maintaining a fire department that meets national consensus standards is significant, even when a department is staffed with volunteers.

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Fortunately, Congress has created programs to help address both staffing issues and equipment, training and apparatus deficiencies in fire departments. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs are competitive grant programs that provides matching funds in the form of direct grants to fire departments and non-fire-based EMS agencies to help them reach a baseline level of preparedness. Through AFG, local departments receive funding to purchase training, equipment and apparatus as well as pay for health and safety programs. SAFER funds are used to hire career firefighters as well as establish or support volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention programs.

Unfortunately, AFG and SAFER have been funded at less than half their authorized levels for years. Last year, Congress funded AFG and SAFER at $360 million each, $45 million below the level provided in fiscal 2011. Providing robust funding for AFG and SAFER would be the quickest, easiest and most effective way to help America’s fire service, including the volunteer fire service, meet their needs.

Those interested in keeping up to date on legislation that benefits the volunteer fire service can sign up for alerts from the National Volunteer Fire Council’s Legislative Action Center, which can be accessed from www.nvfc.org/advocacy. In addition, individuals can take action on these alerts by using the Legislative Action Center to contact their Congress members asking them to support legislation that benefits and supports our nation’s volunteer firefighters and EMS providers.

Dave Finger is chief of legislative and regulatory affairs of National Volunteer Fire Council.