Volunteer firefighter shortage affects Mid-Michigan fire departments

BURTON (WJRT) (04/24/19) - Ten sets of gear hang along the wall at the Burton Fire Department, but nearly just as many racks are empty.

"Twenty-three years ago when I got in service, they gave me my gear and I went and hung it on the last available coat rack in the station. The coat rack was full. Nowadays it's only half full." said Burton Fire Department Assistant Chief Kirk Wilkinson

He said the shortage of volunteer firefighters is not just a problem in Michigan.

"Across the country, volunteer and on-call fire departments are having a hard time filling their positions in the ranks," Wilkinson said.

He said fire departments are now relying on help from others now more than ever before.

"You don't have the personnel you need, so sometimes it creates a delayed response. Other times it requires more mutual aid, more assistance from other communities, where a simple fire in a house -- where you may have in the past adequate staffing or a full staff been able to handle that on your own -- now you're calling mutual aid for it," Wilkinson said.

The number of volunteer and paid on-call firefighters in the U.S. has declined by 12 percent since 1984, according to the National Volunteer Firefighter Council.

So departments are having to think outside the box when it comes to recruiting.

"We're reaching out to the high schools to try and recruit some seniors that may be graduating that may be interested. We haven't done that before," Wilkinson said. "On the East Coast, they've started offering tax incentives, whether it be a percentage off on your water bill."

Wilkinson can't explain the lack of interest in becoming a volunteer firefighter. But he hopes things will turn around, because lives are depending on it.

"Our main concern is making sure our firefighters are safe. We risk a lot to save a lot and risk a little to save a little." Wilkinson said.

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