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Amid firefighter shortage, volunteer departments are struggling to keep up

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Posted at 6:03 PM, Oct 05, 2021

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Kentucky relies heavily on volunteer fire departments to keep their communities safe, but departments across the Commonwealth are struggling to fill vacancies.

The National Fire Protection Association reports volunteer rates have been steadily declining nationwide since 1987.

Sand Gap Volunteer Fire Department Chief Lonnie Madden said they’re dispatched to an average of 250 calls every year, but they do not always have the personnel they need to respond.

“I’ve knocked a lot of fires down by myself before,” he said. “Most of your volunteers around the state have done that.”

Madden said he has 42 volunteers on the roster. The majority work full-time jobs they cannot leave to answer a call in the middle of the day, Madden included.

Christian Collins works at Jackson County Dispatch during the week and volunteers on his time off.

“Most of the time when I’m working dispatch, I’m wishing I was the one going, not the one sitting there telling them where to go,” he said.

Collins said he has unique insight into the issue his fire department faces because he works dispatch. When none of the volunteer firefighters from Sand Gap can respond, he begins calling other counties.

Jackson County has mutual aid agreements with surrounding counties to ensure there’s always a team that can respond to an emergency where personnel shortages may otherwise have made it impossible to respond.

“We don’t have enough help,” Madden said. “If it weren’t for mutual aid, right now there’d be a lot of departments hurting for help.”

Kentucky Fire Commission Executive Director Larry Potter said volunteer and paid fire departments across the state are feeling the strain as they fight to fill positions.

“Things are changing and we’re going to have to change with it; we’re going to have to be proactive; we’re going to have to be creative as best we can in trying to figure out how to retain these people,” Potter said.

Potter said complex factors contribute to the shortage of firefighters.

Fire departments are struggling to recruit young people to become firefighters, which leaves departments with an aging workforce and a shrinking pool of replacements.

Madden estimates 75% of the volunteers at Sand Gap are over the age of 40.

Potter said recruits who successfully complete training may not stay for long. Volunteer firefighters looking to pursue a career in the field will move to larger cities where departments pay career firefighters, like Lexington and Louisville.

“So you’re losing your volunteers. It’s a cycle that goes on,” Potter said. “We’re playing catch up and everybody’s trying to just reach out and get what they can and do what they can with the people they’re getting.”

Career fire departments struggle to retain firefighters too, according to Potter. He said a surge of vacancies has led fire departments to offer pay incentives for people to transfer without losing their benefits.

A labor pool shortage is forcing departments to double outreach efforts.

Potter said they’re emphasizing the Junior Firefighter Program, hoping to attract younger people and train them early on.

The Kentucky Fire Commission and individual departments are also participating in more job fairs and creating new programs and workshops to help aspiring firefighters get the certifications they need as quickly and easily as possible.

“There’s no quick fix to this,” Potter said. “We can’t give up on it. There’s too much at stake to do that.”