In the past few weeks, many articles have come out about the lack of fire and EMS volunteers, especially in small towns and rural areas. A few of the articles have explained that the community can not afford to pay for a paid force and that the volunteers are disappearing, and that the newer generation is not filing the vacancies created by those retiring from the service. I will examine a few of the factors that must be considered and overcome.
Lack of Volunteers in Small Towns
In many small towns, the farmers, business owners, and many shift personnel would make up the staffing for the volunteer fire and EMS service. Today, much farming is done by commercial enterprises that have a schedule and production criteria that does not allow the small-town farmer to take off. Additionally, many small businesses that provided the hardware store, the restaurant, etc. are now provided by a franchise or large corporation, such as McDonalds, Lowes, etc. These companies too have rules that do not permit leaving the job regularly, as they often operate at a minimum staffing level. Lastly, many of the industrial jobs that had a shift system have been sent overseas. This leaves stay at home parents, young adults that do not have a full-time job, and the retired to work. We have covered in previous articles that this does not lend well to the demands of fire and EMS.
Lack of Enough Funds
While fire and EMS workers do not attain sports player salaries, the sallies and benefits can add up to over $100,000 per person. Couple that with 3.5 people needed to cover each position at the fire and EMS station 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you can see that even a two-person crew can cost nearly $700,000 per year in just salaries. You still need a chief to operate the business portion of the operation and overhead in terms of station, apparatus, fuel, etc., it is easy to see why you are deliberating on spending nearly one million dollars a year to provide the service.
In a small town of 600 people, this would cost each person around $1,700 per year in addition to what they pay for police and schools. This is likely not feasible for most individuals, but what is the alternative. We have noted that many of the services that we are discussing are time-sensitive and without them, the results are nearly certain death. Cardiac events, house fires, and trauma from automobile accidents or other types of accidents can be fatal if no one shows up to render care/service and take the person to the hospital.
The school systems have figured out that not every community can have its own school. Most rural law enforcement services are predicated on the regional model, such as a county sheriff. Fire and EMS must move towards this model. While there is much pride in many small volunteer organizations, once the last volunteers walk out the door, the pride will go with them. Focusing on the ability to work regionally has improved immensely over the past decades in light of 9/11 showing that even America’s largest fire department could not operate alone for every event. By combining some of the individual organization, the tax dollars available become larger to the point that affording an on-duty crew is much more feasible.
One may ask how it is fair that one community pay for service for another community, the fire service leaders and elected officials must point out that it would not be fair to charge each person $1,700 or leave them without service. If the though of needing local service, the new regional system could rotate the crew to station located in the multiple towns covered so that it provides more fairness to all.
The whole community concept became popular in FEMA and this concept will be needed again. While many would not have an interest in taking 100 hours of fire training and another 200 hours of medical training, they may be willing to give up 4 to 8 hours to learn CPR and the use of an AED to help their neighbor during a cardiac arrest, Couple their CPR skills with the subsidy of a $1200 AED and a Pulse Point App on their phone and you have just created a free first responder for a rural area of the community that would not have to take numerous hours of training and sign up for shifts. While their availability may not include 100% of the time, it is likely that they are home the same time as their neighbors.
Legislation and Government Funding
While we have always stated that Fire and EMS are a local issue, we must rethink the overall approach. School systems that do not have steady funding receive funding from states and federal grants to allow a more level opportunity to the children growing up in the poorer or less tax-based areas. This is a good model for fire and EMS. The subsidy and legislative need must occur at the state and federal level if we will combat a problem that will begin to affect millions of people in the country. Grants to enable regionalization will be key to making the transition, as often a neutral third party is needed to help facilitate the change.
The dilemma of providing rural EMS and fire in light of the disappearing volunteers will not be easy, but we must work as a united fire and EMS service to ensure that all Americans have access to fire and EMS protection. This is key to survival of many, especially the growing elderly population.