Are Combination Departments The Future?

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The latest U.S. Fire Department Profile, released last month by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), paints a clear picture of volunteer forces that are aging and in decline. The report serves as a warning for every town and municipality in the country that enjoys the protection of dedicated volunteer fire and EMS workers: A volunteer crisis could be coming soon to a town near you.

The profile shows that for the first time in nearly three decades the majority of our volunteers are over the age of 50. The same profile also shows that the number of volunteers under the age of 30 is at its lowest point since 1987. The trend is obvious: Our nation’s volunteers are aging and there are not enough younger volunteers to replace them as they leave the service.

Taken together these numbers are alarming especially to communities with fewer than 2,500 people as these rural towns are served almost exclusively by volunteer forces. Of the 408,650 firefighters that serve these smaller towns 400,000 are volunteers making the picture particularly bleak for these communities. It’s indisputable that these towns will be the hardest hit if a volunteer crisis occurs as they can least afford an all-paid force.

The concern over the diminishing volunteer ranks is of even greater importance to senior citizens. The last report issued by the United States Fire Administration showed that seniors between ages 65 and 74 are twice as likely to die in a fire. By 75 they are four times as likely to die in a fire and by age 85 they are a staggering five times more likely to die in a fire.

While volunteer departments across the country are attempting to ramp up recruitment efforts using community outreach programs, benefit programs like Length of Service Award Programs (LOSAP) and other methods, the ultimate solution may be combination departments.

“The number of calls for volunteer fire and EMS services continues to rise, “says Ed Holohan, an actuary and President of Penflex, Inc. who has been working with volunteer emergency service providers for twenty years and New York State government officials for over three decades. “Many of our smaller rural clients are reporting hundreds of calls a year for rescue squad services and the larger suburban areas respond to thousands of calls. Towns across the country are seeing the need for these services increase and a lack of volunteers to answer these calls is a definite possibility and would be a serious crisis. The key right now is to be proactive. Get the Volunteer Emergency Services Recruitment and Retention Act (VESSRA H.R. 1792) passed, explore tuition reimbursement plans and other fringe benefits, help these departments recruit and retain people. Reach out to your emergency service providers and ask them how you can help them recruit. Waiting until it’s too late would create a real public safety issue.”

Because of the need for volunteer services and the lack of incoming younger members in the fire and EMS ranks, Holohan feels the future may very well be in combination departments. Such departments rely on a mix of volunteer and paid professionals and attempt to mitigate the expense to taxpayers while maintaining the needed level of service.

“We have seen combination departments work right here in New York. For example Arlington, the City of Beacon and the Town/Village of Harrison have combination departments. As our forces continue to age, and with a lack of younger members to replace them, I expect to see combination departments in increased use nationally. That’s the trend I am seeing and hearing about as I talk to government officials and volunteers everyday,” says Holohan.

It’s important to remember, however, that while combination departments may work they still need volunteers to maintain their ranks. Combining departments is a possible and cost-effective solution for some towns, but they still need to recruit and they definitely need the support of their local and national government officials to survive. Whether you have an all-volunteer force or a combination, VESRRA remains a critical piece of legislation and recruitment efforts still will play an important role.

A volunteer crisis wouldn’t be limited to New York State. All over the nation people rely on volunteers. In Wisconsin alone 800 of the state's 870 fire departments are all volunteer. Pennsylvania has 2,500 fire departments of which more than 2,400 are all volunteer.

“The big number to keep in mind is that nationwide it’s estimated that volunteer fire departments save taxpayers 37 billion dollars annually in labor costs. These guys go through rigorous and continued training, they spend time away from their families, their jobs, and they put their lives on the line. It’s a mistake to think that because they aren’t paid they’re not as professional as their career counterparts. These volunteers provide an excellent level of service to their communities for free. There are communities in New York that not only rely on these men and women, they literally could not afford to replace them with all paid forces,” says Holohan. “This is why I firmly believe that combination departments will be the future of fire and EMS services both in New York and nationally.”

Combined departments may be cost-effective and help smaller towns maintain the needed levels of service, but they do pose their own unique set of problems. Volunteers can become resentful of those being paid to do the same job they do for free, lax rules for volunteers with stricter guidelines for the paid personnel can become an issue and the professionals may have a tendency to view their volunteer counterparts as amateurs.

“There are some complexities to work through with combination departments but they are solvable,” adds Holohan. “Volunteers can continue to receive LOSAP and other benefit plans and departments can continue to recruit once these issues are worked out. But despite the challenges there are a number of communities in New York and nationally that will have no choice but to tackle the problems and establish combined departments. The numbers are clear and the writing is on the wall, unless steps are taken to reverse the aging trend in our nation's volunteers there will not be enough of them to serve these towns by themselves. Smaller townships are not going to have a choice. Financial constraints won’t allow for all paid departments and shrinking forces will mean these towns have to take action. The answer will be in combined departments.”

To contact Penflex with questions about LOSAP programs click here. You can also call Penflex with LOSAP questions at: 1.800.742.1409

Are Combination Fire and EMS Departments the Future?