Most fire departments in rural communities around the Quad Cities rely on volunteer firefighters. However, with increasing demands on hours and no paycheck, finding those volunteers is getting tougher.
Tyler Schmidt, Fire Chief for the Fire Department in Eldridge, Iowa, has been a firefighter for 20 years.
“They were just starting the Firefighter One training, which was probably 60 hours of training,” said Schmidt.
Now, because many calls to the fire department are medical, Eldridge firefighters are required to complete 60 hours of Firefighter One training along with medical training, which can take anywhere from six months to a year.
Between the training, hectic hours, and zero pay, Schmidt said it’s tough finding volunteers.
“It’s very hard to get people who say they’d like to help,” Schmidt said. “Most people get home from work and don’t want to get up at two o’clock in the morning to go help somebody.”
The number of volunteer firefighters has dropped 11 percent since the 1980’s, while the actual cost of running a fire department has risen. A traditional fire truck costs $400,000 more now than it did 30 years ago.
That worries Fire Chiefs like Don Carey from the Rapid City Fire Protection District. He said they sometimes have to call in other fire departments to a structure fire because they don’t have enough volunteers to help.
“Typically the volunteer situation will follow the economy. When the economy goes down, your volunteers tend to fall off,” said Carey. “Right now I’ve got about 28 volunteers on the roster. I’d like to have about five or six more to get very comfortable.”
Carey said recruitment takes some finesse. His fire department holds open houses where they can showcase all their equipment and people can meet the firefighters.
“You go by word of mouth, you go by your good guys getting another friend they know that’s a good guy, or a good gal, and getting them to come down,” said Carey.
Carey said the number one incentive to volunteer for the job is simple, getting the chance to help others and give back to the community.
“I think there’s something down deep that says they’re caring compassionate folks and they know there are folks out there that are having a rougher day than you and I have had,” said Carey. “We just like to step in and make their day just a little bit better and pick them up out of that bad situation. Whether it’s the elderly lady at two o’clock in the morning that’s fallen or it’s somebody that’s having a structure fire.”