Over the past 30 years, fire departments in both urban and rural areas have struggled to recruit new firefighters into a profession that’s more than half volunteers.
In rural America, the pandemic has brought the crisis to a new apex.
Rural firefighters have been on the front lines of the pandemic, tackling wildfires and vehicle accidents even as they transport ill and injured residents to hospitals. COVID-19’s heavy toll on rural hospitals has extended to emergency responders, meaning firefighters are answering more medical calls than ever before. The increased workload, and the specter of vaccine mandates, has made recruitment even tougher.
And then there’s the trauma they’ve endured.
The mass death and suffering of the past 20 months has spawned a surge of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, insomnia and substance use disorder among health care professionals of all kinds. Answering calls at the homes of relatives, friends and neighbors—which many rural firefighters have had to do—magnifies the pain.
“We’re still in this pandemic, and we’re still fighting those emotions. It’s not [as if] it happened three years ago,” said Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, which runs mental health workshops for fire departments. “We’ve had numerous firefighters that have taken their lives because of it—seeing and handling the stress and the depression and the bodies that piled up.”
In many fire departments, the workers expected to endure that stress don’t even receive paychecks. Of more than 1.1 million firefighters nationwide, 67% are volunteers who are not paid or receive a minimal amount to cover gas and other expenses, according to a 2021 fact sheet by the National Volunteer Fire Council. Many of them are in rural America: Nearly 40% of communities with between 5,000 and 9,999 residents had all-volunteer departments as of 2018, according to a tally released last year by the National Fire Protection Association.
In communities with between 2,500 and 4,999 people, the percentage of all-volunteer departments was 72%, and 92% in towns of less than 2,500.
Fire Chief J.T. Wallace Jr. of Benton Fire District No. 4 in rural Louisiana said he does not have enough firefighters, paid or volunteer, to respond to structural fires. The community is small, but the population has grown slightly in the past few years, making it harder to meet demand and staff the stations.
Recently, Wallace Jr. had an entire shift of firefighters out because they contracted COVID-19. Three firefighters have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder within the past year.
“I think we didn’t lose community, but we were wounded in other ways psychologically. It got pretty bad,” Wallace Jr. said. “We’ve seen stress. I’ve been doing this almost 50 years and this is a different ballgame with what we have to deal with.”
Chris Smith, a lieutenant at the Bolivar County Volunteer Fire Department in Mississippi, has been a volunteer firefighter for 13 years. He likewise said the pandemic has brought a new level of stress to an already difficult job. The extra work is hard enough—firefighters responding to COVID-related calls must don special protective gear, for example. Much worse has been responding to the calls of sick loved ones, he said, which takes a heavy emotional toll.
Smith volunteers 30 to 40 hours a week, in addition to working his full-time job as technical program manager of geospatial information technology at Delta State University. It has been “nearly impossible,” he said, to find volunteers to lighten the load over the past year and a half.
Smith said he is concerned that even the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate is driving volunteers away, though there aren’t vaccine mandates in place in Bolivar County—at least not yet. He is fully vaccinated but opposes a requirement because he worries it would dissuade would-be volunteers. Even in the best of times, it’s difficult to find people who are willing to volunteer.
“People are too busy, or they don't understand that the fire departments are volunteer. And when they do, they're like, ‘That's not for me,’” Smith said.
Between 2000 and 2015, reported fires declined across the country, but fire departments have assumed a greater role in responding to the increasing number of medical aid and rescue calls. In rural America, firefighters have a tougher task because they must respond to calls across greater distances.
And there is a correlation between population density and fire deaths, according to a September 2019 report by the National Fire Protection Association, which examined fire-related deaths between 2013 and 2017. Sparsely populated counties fared the worst, and nine of the 10 states with the highest fire death rates were in the South.
The report also found that states with higher rates of fire deaths have more residents with low incomes, who have disabilities or who are Black, Native American or Native Alaskan.
The pandemic has exacerbated longstanding recruitment and retention problems in rural departments, especially those that rely on volunteers.
Volunteer firefighting just isn’t as appealing to younger couples who rely on two incomes, said Steve Hirsch, a veteran firefighter and chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, a nonprofit advocacy association representing volunteer fire, emergency medical and rescue services.
Even some residents who do volunteer aren’t always available to answer calls, because they work full-time jobs in another community, Hirsch said.
“When my dad started in the fire service 60 years ago, typically it was dads who were volunteering, and moms were at home to take care of the kids and it worked out fine. But the reality today is that both mom and dad are working,” Hirsch said. “Some of those rural communities don't have any jobs available for people. So, they've lost population. And sometimes the people that do live in those communities work someplace else.”
George Richards, president of the Montana State Council of Professional Firefighters, said many younger people “just don’t have the willingness to volunteer or serve without being compensated.” In Montana, 90% of departments are volunteer.
“A lot of the departments had volunteers, members, for 20-plus, in some cases 40 years,” Richards said. “There’s just not that stronghold of commitment in this different generation.”
Older firefighters tend to take more sick leave, Richards said. When many firefighters are absent, the ones who are available must work longer hours, or some stations are forced to shut down on certain days.
Bob Timko, a member of the National Volunteer Fire Council’s recruitment and retention committee, said volunteer departments need to ratchet up recruitment efforts, perhaps in partnership with local businesses.
“[Young people] aren’t coming in the door,” Timko said. “I would challenge leadership to develop a program or use resources to educate people on what we do.”
Smith, the firefighter in the Mississippi Delta, said that even people who don’t want to be volunteer firefighters can do things to alleviate the stress on first responders, whether it's cleaning and maintaining the fire stations or helping with operations.
“How would you feel if your house was on fire, and no one showed up?” Smith asked. “There's no one there to protect you or your property. We're here to do the community good and make it a better place.
“We just want some good people to come and give back to their community.”