The science of the city: Can volunteer fire companies survive?
By Paul Ruffins
Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of Paul Ruffins’ three-part series on local firefighting. To read the first two installments, which described the volunteer firehouses in College Park and the larger county system they belong to, visit streetcarsuburbs.news/tag/science-of-the-city.
According to annual surveys conducted by Firehouse magazine, the Prince George’s Fire Department (PGFD) is one of the busiest fire departments in the U.S., coming in at 10th busiest in fire calls and 12th in overall runs. PGFD is America’s biggest combination department, or one that is staffed by both career and volunteer firefighters and EMTs (paramedics).
When you ask county fire officials about their biggest challenges, their consistent response points to recruitment and retention. Can we attract and maintain enough members to meet the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standards of at least two people per ambulance and four per truck? And are we able to meet the NFPA 4-minute travel time standard?
And as county fire departments may struggle with these immediate challenges, they also have to grapple with a clear historical staffing trend. Jason Decremer’s doctoral thesis, Improving Recruitment and Retention of Volunteer Firefighters (Walden University, 2018). describes this progression. Since their founding before the American revolution, U.S. fire departments have typically started out staffed entirely by volunteers, shifted to a relatively balanced combination of volunteers and paid firefighters, then moved to career firefighters supplemented by volunteers, and are finally fully staffed by paid members. So far, PGFD is no exception to this progression.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find volunteers these days” said former PGFD chief Marc Bashoor. “Fire companies, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, churches — they’re all facing the same problem.”
In addition to recruiting, retention is a challenge for volunteer departments. In 2020, the National Volunteer Fire Council surveyed 1,030 current and former volunteer firefighters and reported that 70% of them felt that retaining members was a major problem for their departments. Prince George’s County has two particular challenges in recruiting and retaining members: its dispatch model, and its training requirements.
In many communities, volunteers are dispatched from wherever they may be — home, work or elsewhere — to the scene of the emergency, and they respond using their own vehicles. (GPS tracking systems may also direct some responders to the firehouse, first, to get the engines.) In contrast, PGFD dispatches nearly everyone from firehouses (though chiefs may respond from other locations). This is safer and reduces response times but requires volunteers to commit to spending much more time at the station than they might otherwise.
Unlike some jurisdictions where fire and ambulance departments are completely separate, PGFD’s departments are combined, and because of this all new recruits, including volunteers, are required to cross-train as EMTs.(Note, too, that volunteers can opt out of firefighting service and work only as EMTs.) This requirement is practical, too; in 2020, alone, the department received more than 140,000 calls, about 70% of which were for medical assistance. However, firefighter/ EMT certification requires about 400 hours of training — a huge commitment for volunteers, and one that may significantly reduce the pool of candidates. According to Patrick Marlatt, deputy director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, at the University of Maryland, “…there are many people who would make good firefighters who can’t handle the type of testing involved in getting certified as an EMT.” There is also a psychological issue for responders, as a significant percentage of medical runs turn out to be non-emergencies.
Ryan Pidgeon, chief of the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department, confirmed that fire companies confront this issue constantly. “For example,” he said, “there is an older woman who has trouble getting out of bed, and [she] calls 911 several times a month because she has dropped the remote for her television. However, the lady simply says that she’s sick and needs help, so the department must respond.” These calls may be less than fulfilling for some responders who volunteered for the action and excitement inherent in emergencies.
Responding to medical emergencies, and even non-emergencies, may have a silver lining, though. Private health insurance and Medicare cover the cost of a medically necessary ambulance ride to the hospital, and PGFD charges $500-$750 per ambulance call, so the service is a positive source of revenue. Like all surrounding jurisdictions, the county bills people who have private insurance and Medicare, and is deliberately not aggressive about collecting past-due accounts. However, merely receiving a bill may help deter some of the frequent flyers from unnecessarily dialing 911.
But, even as some firefighters may find themselves doing work that isn’t entirely fulfilling, the number of volunteer departments in the county fell by only 11% over the past two decades. Local fire companies are striving to adapt and accommodate potential recruits. As Chief Pidgeon noted, “Hyattville has developed a live-in program that’s very attractive to college students. This causes constant retention problems, though, because some students graduate every semester. However, it also provides a steady stream of new recruits. I worry whether this will be sustainable in 10 years, but we’ve learned to plan around this cycle, and so far, it’s working.”
And recruiting efforts are evolving. “We’ve had pretty good success in recruiting students interested in medicine and public health, particularly women,” reports Jeramie Jordan, president of Branchville Volunteer Fire Department. “They see serving as an EMT as giving them an advantage in getting into graduate school.”
Will these volunteer fire companies survive? The answer hinges on whether they can enhance their recruitment and retention. But two things are clear. The need for emergency services is increasing, and the volunteers are fighting to preserve a centuries-old tradition that says there’s more to life than money.