Volunteer firefighters harder to find

Chris Green

The pay is zilch to minimum wage at best.

The hours are all over the place.

But the reward is priceless.

“I get a lot of self-gratification going out to save the day,” said 21-year-old Michael Gilbert, a Blackhawk Fire Department volunteer firefighter for all of six months.

Gilbert’s motivation for joining a dwindling breed of first responders is simple.

“I want to serve my community and give something back,” he said. “At this point and time in my life, this is the perfect time to do this.”

Volunteer fire departments locally and nationwide are in dire need of more recruits like Gilbert.

North Park Fire Chief Steve Pearson said he has nearly 60 volunteers on his roster.

“We would like to be around 80,” he said. “We’re looking to have a more consistent response. At any given time, we might only have a half dozen available to respond.”

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, the sheer volume of calls responded to by U.S. fire departments has more than doubled between 1986, when 11,890,000 calls were logged, and 2007, when 25,334.500 calls were answered. During the same time period, the number of active volunteer firefighters has decreased by 8 percent.

While the number of calls for structure fires continues to decrease, the total number of emergency calls continues to increase, largely because of more medical calls spurred by a maturing population of baby boomers.

A commitment

Vying for the time and talents of the potential recruits are their families and a poor economy, which is forcing many would-be recruits to work two jobs.

“It’s becoming tougher and tougher to recruit and retain personnel,” Pearson said. “Fewer and fewer companies allow their people to leave for emergencies. It’s a nationwide problem that volunteers are facing all over the country.”

Kimberly Ettinger is director of communications for the Maryland-based National Volunteer Fire Council, a nonprofit membership association and advocate for the volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services. She said volunteer firefighters make up 72 percent of all firefighters nationwide. She also said the need for more volunteers is a nationwide trend.

“In the early ’80s, we had 897,000 volunteer firefighters,” Ettinger said. “Now we have 825,000.

With the exception of 2001 and 2002 (the year of and the year after 9/11 when many young men and woman joined the armed forces or became first responders), it’s been a real challenge to attract and retain volunteer firefighters.”

The state of Illinois is pushing all volunteer fire departments to have “firefighter II” trained personnel, a standardized level of basic training. The hours needed for a volunteer to achieve such training can be a deterrent.

“When you break down training and fire calls, they’re putting in 20 hours a week or more,” said Cherry Valley Fire Chief Craig Wilt. “That can be hard on a home life. If they are working more than one job, it can be hard to keep them.”

Blackhawk Fire Chief Harry Tallacksen said being a volunteer is all about commitment.

“It’s more than being on a roster,” he said. “It’s 24 Saturdays of written and hands-on tests.”

Incentives

Kevin Combs, 20, of Roscoe, is one of 10 new volunteer firefighters sworn in this month by the Harlem-Roscoe Fire Department. While still new on the job, he has already learned enough to know he wants to make a career out of fighting fires.

“Right out of high school, I went to Rock Valley and took a fire science class. A friend told me about Harlem-Roscoe Fire, and I’ve loved it ever since. They’re like a second family to me. The teamwork that you put in. I told them this is what I want to do for a career.”

Abby Hill, 23, is another member of Harlem-Roscoe’s latest recruitment class. She too enjoys the camaraderie, but does not desire to make a career out of fighting fires.

“My roommate, Reety, is a firefighter on Harlem-Roscoe, and she’s been there for a couple of years. It seems like a great job, very rewarding, and I want to be a part of that.”

“I’d rather just do it on a volunteer basis,” she said. “If you are a volunteer, you don’t have to dedicate 40 hours a week to it.”

Harlem-Roscoe Fire Chief Don Shoevlin said his department is among a growing number of departments offering its firefighters pay per call, a minimum-wage stipend for each call the firefighter is able to respond to.

Volunteer fire departments also are incorporating other recruitment and incentive packages such as hosting award ceremonies to recognize a firefighter’s years of service or a heroic act, tuition assistance, personal health insurance, life insurance and even a retirement or pension plan.

A steppingstone

Rockford Fire Chief Derek Bergsten is one of many Rockford firefighters to rise from the ranks of the volunteers. He said his four-year stint with the Loves Park Fire Department played a “vital” role in helping him determine his career path.

“Everybody said you need to try it out to see if you like it. Probably from the first day, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

While volunteer departments take pride when one of their own acquires the necessary training and moves on to full-time departments, Wilt said the main incentive for joining a volunteer department still should be the job itself.

“It’s the greatest and most exciting job in the world. If you are able to save someone or save their property from fire, it’s very gratifying.”

Blackhawk Fire operates on a budget of about $200,000 and does not offer pay per call.

Gilbert said he’s OK with that.

“I really don’t want to leave Blackhawk Fire,” he said. “We don’t get paid. We’re just doing it out of our own free will. We get up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning to respond to a call, and we’re all going for the same cause and reason.”

Chris Green can be reached atcgreen@rrstar.com or (815) 987-1241.