The decline of volunteer firefighters, how it impacts local departments

NOW: The decline of volunteer firefighters, how it impacts local departments

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. -- A local problem is following a national trend.

According to the US Fire Administration, more than 70% of Indiana firefighters are volunteers, but the percentage continues to lessen.

There are just about four volunteer fire departments left in Saint Joe County when at one point in time, there were nearly double.

Local fire chiefs say over time it's gotten harder and harder to recruit volunteers, and now, they need to find new solutions.

"Statewide, volunteer fire departments, the numbers are down," says Jerry Liston, the president of the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association.

The Hoosier state has lost nearly 4,000 volunteer firefighters in the last 30 years according to Liston. 

It's a trend that he and local fire chiefs expect to continue. 

"Training requirements are the same as career firefighters and then taking that time away from your family, events, that kind of thing, and getting no compensation for that, or very little," explains Southwest Central Fire Territory Fire Chief Darrell Eiler.

That's why there's a local push to consolidate several of Saint Joseph County's township fire territories into one, where firefighters would be offered paid positions.

Chief Eiler believes a unified Saint Joseph County Fire Territory would help combine resources and rely less on volunteers, which are harder to find with the competitive wages and benefits that career departments provide. 

"It's getting tougher and tougher for these, especially the small rural departments, to have adequate manpower staffing," Liston says.

However, it comes at a cost. 

According to a 2020 study by the American Economics Group, volunteer firefighters save Indiana taxpayers $4.5 billion a year.

But rural communities may have to lose the savings to save lives.

"There's always going to be a need for volunteers," Chief Eiler says. "You got your really small communities that maybe only do 100 calls a year, how do you justify a career department for a hundred calls a year?" 

Local leaders are holding public meetings on the proposed St. Joseph County Fire Territory, and they want feedback. 

There will be meetings on March 5, 14, and 28 at 6 p.m. at the Fillmore Fire Station 41.  

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