Volunteer fire departments across the Red River Valley are seeing a drop in new recruits, according to area firemen.
“It’s not just a local issue, it’s statewide,” Cooper Volunteer Fire Dept. Assistant Chief Tanner Crutcher said.
Departments around the state have a harder time each year finding volunteers who want to spend their free time fighting fires and assisting the department, Crutcher said. Around the country, volunteer firefighters make up more than half of all active firefighting personnel, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, and 70% of the fire departments in the U.S. are volunteer. In Texas, over 80% of fire departments are all or mostly volunteers.
A large part of that needs to be younger recruits, but with many working a second job or starting a family, it gets difficult, Crutcher said.
“Altogether, it’s harder to recruit people that have the time,” he said.
Powderly VFD Chief Roger Brussell agreed.
“My theory is the younger generation are interested in having kids and families, and it really pulls (from available volunteers),” he said.
In Powderly, a lot of the available volunteers drive a ways to work each day, such as working in Paris, which can keep many of them from responding quickly to local fires. His department has about 42 volunteers, he said.
“We have about 10 that could respond to a major event at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday,” Brussell said.
Young volunteers fresh out of high school sign up, but then life gets in the way, he added.
“We have 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds interested in firefighting, and they do that for a few years and then go off and have families,” Brussell said. “Nobody has the time.”
And volunteering as a firefighter takes a lot of time, he said. Firefighters have to be up on not only their state certifications, but many also require emergency medical training as well, and weekly meetings to keep up the certifications.
“There’s a lot of training involved,” Brussell said.
But one thing Lamar County does have is a lot of inter-departmental cooperation, according to Rick Browning, chief of the Faught VFD.
“In Lamar County, we depend on other departments,” he said. “Every department has to depend on their neighbors, and that helps fill in the gaps.”
His department does not have a problem with volunteers right now, but they have in the past, Browning said.
“We’ve seen the ebb and flow of it,” he said. “Volunteerism in America has probably seen its best day because people’s lives have gotten so full and complicated.”
The departments have also had complications because of Covid-19, Brussell said.
“A lot of the VFDs are struggling for money,” he said. “Medical calls are through the roof. We have had 300 medical calls so far this year.”
With event restrictions in place, a lot of volunteer fire departments can’t hold their usual fundraisers, like barbecues and chili suppers.
“With revenue down, it’s putting us in a pretty bad position,” Brussell said. “We normally get 40% to 50% of our annual budget from one fundraiser.”
But the departments will carry on, Browning said.
“We are proud to do it and will continue to do it,” he said. “It’s a great benefit to the public. It takes their donations as much as their participation.”