By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest
In the past few weeks, many articles have come out about the lack of fire and emergency medical services (EMS) volunteers, especially in small towns and rural areas. These articles have explained that some communities cannot afford to pay for a paid force and that volunteers are disappearing. Also, the newer generation is not filling the vacancies created by those retiring from the service.
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There are several factors that must be considered and overcome to attract volunteers to fire/EMS services, especially in rural areas. These factors include the lack of volunteers in small towns, insufficient funds, regionalization, legislation and government funding.
The Lack of Volunteers in Small Towns
In many small towns, farmers, business owners and many shift personnel make up the staff for the volunteer fire and EMS service. Today, much farming is done by commercial enterprises that have a schedule and production criteria, which does not allow small-town farmers to take time off for volunteer work.
Additionally, many small businesses are now controlled by a franchise or large corporation, such as McDonald’s or Lowe’s. These companies also have rules that do not permit employees to leave the job regularly, as these businesses often operate with a minimal amount of staff.
Lastly, many of the industrial jobs that use a shift system have been sent overseas. This leaves stay-at-home parents, young adults who do not have a full-time job and retirees as a potential pool of volunteers, but these groups do not necessarily suit the physical demands of fire and EMS.
Lack of Funding
While fire and EMS workers do not attain sports player salaries, their salaries and benefits can add up to over $100,000 per person. If you multiple that amount with the three and a half 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 salaries alone.
In addition, you still need a chief to control the business portion of the operation and overhead in terms of station, apparatus and fuel. As a result, it is easy to understand how you can spend nearly one million dollars a year to provide fire and EMS service.
In a small town of 600 people, for instance, this amount would cost each taxpayer around $1,700 per year in addition to what is paid for police and schools. This cost is hard for most individuals to afford, but what is the alternative?
Fire and EMS services are time-sensitive; without them, the result is nearly certain death. For instance, 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 and take a victim to the hospital.
Regionalization and Tiered Response
Most rural law enforcement services are predicated on the regional model, such as a county sheriff. Fire and EMS must move towards this same model.
While there is much pride in many small volunteer organizations, once the last volunteers walk out the door, that pride goes with them. Focusing on volunteers’ 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 organizations, available tax dollars become larger to the point that affording an on-duty crew is much more feasible.
Is it fair to ask that one community pay for service for another community? If residents balk at this idea, fire service leaders and elected officials must point out that it would not be fair to charge each person a higher tax or face the alternative of being without fire/EMS service. But a new regional system could rotate crews to stations located in multiple towns so that they provide more coverage to all residents.
The whole community concept became popular in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and this concept will no doubt be needed again. While many volunteers 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 four to eight hours of their time to learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) to help a neighbor who suffers a cardiac arrest.
Couple those CPR skills with the subsidy of a $1,200 AED and a PulsePoint app on a volunteer’s phone, and you have just created a free first responder for a rural area of the community, who does not have to take numerous hours of training and sign up for shifts. While this type of volunteer may not be available 100% of the time, it is likely that he or she will be home at the same time as their neighbors.
Legislation and Government Funding
While we have always stated that fire and EMS service are a local issue, it’s time to rethink the overall approach. School systems without steady funding receive funding from states and federal grants to provide more level opportunities to children growing up in poor, ill-funded areas.
This method of funding is a good model for fire and EMS. Subsidies and legislation must occur at the state and federal level to help us combat a volunteer shortage problem that will eventually begin to affects millions of people in the U.S. 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 fire and EMS services in light of disappearing volunteers will not be easy, but we must work in a united way to ensure that all Americans have access to fire and EMS protection. Good fire and EMS services are key to the survival of many people, especially to the growing elderly population.