All photos by Peter Crabtree
At midafternoon the first alarm flagged a fast-burning brush fire in one of the most remote corners of southern Vermont. By the time the first crew arrived, the fire had spread with shifting winds coaxing a rapid uphill burn. Twigs and pine needles fed the flames, scorching black patches in the underbrush as the blaze splayed over the rugged mountainside.
With just seven volunteer firefighters available to tackle a wildfire that might torch hundreds of acres of mountain wilderness, a mutual aid request went out to four other departments, including one from across the state line in New York.
Other crews responded, but they too were dealing with a depleted volunteer corps. As each new team scrambled up the rugged terrain, others stepped back, exhausted from time spent digging fire lines — dirt channels in the angled terrain — and tackling burning brush while carrying power tools and 40-pound water packs. It was grueling, dangerous work with little rest while the blaze burned on, in this case for nearly eight hours.
“We were called in by the Arlington Fire Department… We watched the fire jump one line and then two more and realized this is burning way too fast. We needed more help,” said Kodi Cross, a firefighter with the Shaftsbury Fire Department who helped extinguish the wildfire. “Manpower is a big issue. There’s always a question of whether you’ll get the numbers to contain a fire.”
A crisis is threatening fire departments across Vermont, where 88% are staffed mostly or entirely by volunteers. Fewer and fewer people are joining their ranks, and long-time volunteers are aging out. The crisis isn’t confined to Vermont. Nationally, 70% of fire departments are mostly or entirely volunteer, and the number of new recruits is also declining.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the total number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. dropped 17% over a five-year period — from about 815,000 in 2015 to 677,000 in 2020, the last year for which figures were available. It’s in small towns and rural areas with fewer resources where the falloff in volunteering has been felt the most, in communities where firefighters are the first line of defense for everything from fires, to car crashes to natural disaster rescue missions.
“I don’t know one department in this part of Vermont that’s not feeling the impact,” said Fire Chief Joe Vadakin with the Shaftsbury Fire Department. “It’s not as if suddenly firefighters are quitting. It’s a problem that’s crept up on us over the years and now we’re feeling the consequences.”
The shortfall in volunteers comes as call volume is surging, tripling in the last 30 years, largely due to the jump in emergency medical calls, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. While larger departments have invested in trained EMS units, that is rarely a financial option for stations serving small towns or rural communities.
“When I first became chief, we’d average about 60 or 70 calls a year, now the call volume is over 120 calls a year, of which around 40 to 50% are emergency rescue calls, mostly involving car accidents,” said Vadakin, who has been with the Shaftsbury FD for 44 years, 22 as its chief.
Climate change emergencies are also growing more frequent and more dangerous. “In past May we had 27 callouts. About half were wild-land fires, which are increasing every year. Whether you believe in climate change or not, we can see it happening, we can see it getting hotter and drier,” said Vadakin as he laid out equipment for the station’s weekly drill.
Among the raft of recruitment and retention challenges facing volunteer fire departments, stringent training and certification guidelines top the list. In Vermont, and most other states, volunteers are required to spend a substantial amount of hours learning the basics of firefighting, a time commitment that has steadily increased as equipment and firefighting techniques become ever more technical.
To qualify for interior/structural firefighting, volunteers complete a two-part, 220-hour NFPA training course that takes nine months to complete. By comparison, an earlier training course took volunteers 47 hours to qualify.
“The training scares people away. … A lot of people just don’t have the time to put in those hours,” said Brian Hawley, the assistant fire warden at Arlington FD.
But not everyone agrees with that argument.
“It’s not training that’s a problem for recruitment and retention,” said Rabbi Howard Cohen, who became chaplain of the Bennington Fire Department in the wake of 9/11 and later served as the department’s deputy chief. “As a volunteer, you want to get your hands dirty. A lot of the work volunteers do has little to do with firefighting. … It can be frustrating and leads to people dropping out.”
Cohen points out that of the 32 million fire calls in the US in 2020, less than 2% were fire-related, according to NFPA data. Again, a high percentage of calls are EMS emergencies, many related to car and truck accidents. That in itself takes a toll on firefighters who are often the first responders at grisly fatal crashes.
The former deputy chief argues that falling recruitment is also a reflection of a wider social problem.
“There used to be a real social dynamic to the fire department … [it] was a social club where you could have a beer, meet up with friends, and hang out, which was a way of recruiting and keeping membership. Today people have different priorities. … Every social gathering place in our society has seen dramatic declines in involvement, from churches to synagogues to bowling teams. Community commitment is hard to find.”
Others blame today’s economy for the scarcity of recruits. They argue the higher cost of living, especially housing, has forced people to work longer hours or even two jobs. Two-income families are the new normal. All this means that people, particularly parents, have few hours left in the day to spend volunteering.
“It’s a combination of more hours demanded of firefighters and less time to give,” said Paul Dansereau sitting at the steering wheel of a pumper engine, his son Patrick next to him. Helmets on and wearing heavy firefighter jackets, they are on their way to a pump exercise at a nearby pond, a twice-monthly drill that’s a critical part of the job.
At 25, Patrick is one of the youngest firefighters in the department. His work has taken him to North Carolina. He has no plans to join another department. “Volunteering is just too complicated with my new job,” he said.
Across the cab, his father, Paul, added: “A company spends effort to recruit, but if there are no jobs keeping them in the area, it’s a losing battle. We’ve lost six firefighters between 18-23 years old since I’ve been here, all for work reasons. That’s an engine company and a half.”
With most firefighters working 9-to-5 jobs, turnout for daytime calls is especially troublesome. Increasingly, people work jobs far from their home fire station. Employers are also less likely to let their employees leave work to answer calls or compensate them for the time they take firefighting.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, you could close a business down, put a sign up and say, ‘Going to a fire.’ But the world doesn’t work that way anymore,” said Bill Beideman, second assistant chief for the Manchester Fire Department. “Things have changed.”
This spring the Vermont Fire Service put out a different kind of emergency call. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) joined them in launching Operation Mayday, a statewide effort to attract new recruits.
“Firefighters, both career and volunteer, are brave and dedicated members of our communities who often make the difference between life and death. Yet too many of our firehouses are understaffed and lack the resources they need to provide this essential service. This is a dangerous situation which, together, we must remedy,” Sanders said in a statement.
While firefighters applauded Operation Mayday’s intent, they grumbled that the impact was limited.
As one firefighter put it: “At the end of the day, there’s no incentive for people that are at times risking their lives. It needs to be fixed and that comes down to money.”
In a world where a new engine costs $500,000 dollars, hose nozzles $600, and helmets $300 each, raising money from pot-luck dinners and fire station bingo is hardly realistic. Budgeting for rural and small-town departments is tough enough without mention of paying volunteers. But the debate over compensation still rages.
There are plenty of models for reimbursing firefighters, with varying degrees of success. Some larger departments operate with a combination of volunteer and career positions. Other townships pay only the fire chief. In Manchester, among the wealthier villages in the state, the town budget reserves $30,000 a year to pay volunteer firefighters. Based on a points system, volunteers earn a point for showing up to alarms — about 280 calls a year — drills, meetings, and fundraising events. Points are totaled and divided among the membership, compensation that equals about $7 a call over the course of a year, according to second assistant chief Beideman.
“I don’t think money is the driving factor that gets people out to a fire, especially when you consider some calls take 15 minutes and others six hours and they’re all worth one point. It’s commitment, and you don’t see much of that anymore,” said Beideman.
Other ideas to recruit and retain firefighters include in-house two-tier training, which offers roles for potential volunteers who aren’t interested in committing to an extensive training program. Some firefighters argue for tax credits, health insurance, or pension plans, allocated according to years of service. There’s even talk of college tuition credits or housing assistance made available to volunteers.
In 1736, long before Benjamin Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence, he founded the country’s first volunteer fire department. He was also an avid firefighter. While dramatic stories of his crew’s fire-fighting exploits helped sell copies of his newspaper, Franklin mainly saw volunteering as simply doing his civic duty.
“Ben Franklin started the first fire brigade. Volunteerism was and is an important thing in our country,” said Shaftsbury Chief Vadakin. “I’m here and I’ve been here as a firefighter for 45 years because I want to give back to my community. It’s a very American thing to do.”
But that tradition is under pressure.
“We have huge respect for firefighters, but we need to acknowledge the fire service has been in a state of crisis for a long time. It’s an antiquated model that absolutely needs to change,” said Rabbi Cohen.