The challenges facing volunteer departments

Most volunteer fire departments are self-governing bodies within a municipality that function under the direction of a fire chief with discretions beyond what the state statutes stipulate. The chief is responsible for how the department is set up, operated, staffed, trained and procures the necessary equipment and supplies.

One of the biggest challenges for a volunteer department is staffing, particularly during the daytime. Back when farming and local tradesmen were common in every community, they were the most consistently available resource for staffing volunteer fire departments. This day and age with the improvements in roads and transportation, working away from the local community is common place and logical for optimal wages. Therefore, the local volunteer resources are challenged by time away for work and other family activities, which often occur away from the area. Fortunately 99 percent of the fire departments within the state of New Hampshire are members of a regional mutual aid pact with their neighboring fire department. They are often being called upon to help ensure adequate resources to handle a request for the emergency services being provided by a volunteer fire department.

The answer to this staffing challenge is not an easy one. I’d like to see more emphasis afforded within a given school district, allowing the local fire departments to make an appeal during the school year to the 16 and older population to consider volunteering in their respective towns as emergency fire and/or EMS responders, which could ultimately become their chosen profession or enlighten them to other related opportunities. Another possibility would be to pass legislation making it possible to offer property tax and other monetary incentives afforded from the state to residents for becoming a volunteer emergency responder.

A common misconception about becoming a volunteer in the emergency services of a local fire department is that not having experience is an obstacle. In my opinion, 90 percent or more of all volunteers began without any experience. Most departments are prepared to provide all the necessary tools and protective equipment required and access to all the training necessary without any financial commitment in return for one’s dedication. A good candidate would simply need to be practical, use a common-sense approach, possess a general mechanical aptitude and enjoy the positive experiences of helping others with the assistance of other volunteers.

I see the immediate and long-term needs of most volunteer fire departments as maintaining staffing, providing local, regularly available basic training and maintaining consistent financial support. We are optimistically waiting for state-certified training to become available online, which will help immensely with convenient, timely access to begin the certification process.

Greenfield Fire Chief Loren D. White has been in the fire service for 34 years; he started as a volunteer in 1979 with Amherst. When he and his wife bought their home in Greenfield in 1985, White joined the Fire Department before actually moving to town. He’s now been the chief and deputy chief since 2001.

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