WINONA – Finding and retaining volunteers for fire departments across the region, state and country has been an increasing challenge.
So in recent years, volunteer departments have gotten creative in trying to fill out the ranks with a badly needed younger generation, from special events to creative recruiting to simply doing their parts to make sure their cities are economically healthy and attracting new residents.
"There were only a few people manning the department," said Pickwick, Minn., volunteer Fire Chief Adam Zimmerman. Many of the members wanted to retire but didn't, because there was no one to replace them, he said.
The biggest problem might be the value of the work — rescuing people, saving lives — weighed against the potential danger and time commitment, said Minnesota State Fire Marshal Bruce West.
"For a person to dedicate time to their community and their fire department, they want to know what's in it for them," West said.
Minnesota State Fire Association board member Tony Bronk, who also sits on the National Volunteer Fire Council, agreed. Life is just too busy for many people to commit to about 80 to 140 hours of training, and then be on call 24 hours a day, he said.
"You could be on a run all day," Goodview Fire Chief Todd Ives said.
Or much longer.
During the 2007 flood, volunteer firefighters from across the area stayed on duty for days and weeks. For at least two days straight during the flood, Ives did nothing but eat, sleep and work. His crew was right there with him — even though some no longer had a home or bed to go back to.
The challenge isn't just finding new recruits — it's also keeping them.
"With the younger folks the turnover rate is higher," said Minnesota City Fire Chief Tim Neyers. "They may not be committed to the area."
Volunteer departments face perennially tight budgets. A new pair of coat and pants can cost about $2,000, Ives said, and since volunteers often pay for training, a lot of departments will help with equipment. But if the volunteers leave quickly, the department loses that money, Ives said.
The state has recognized the problem, and is trying to help departments through the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training, where money is set aside to help departments cover training.
But that doesn't help with finding the recruits.
The Pickwick department implemented a youth program called Boy Scouts of America Fire Service Explorer, which gets kids involved with the departments at a young age — cleaning fire trucks, hanging out with the crew, learning firefighting skills — all in the hopes they'll stay interested after turning 18.
The Dakota Volunteer Fire Department, is not only low in number but has no volunteers in their 20s. The department has 18 members, with 38 percent in their 50s or older. Such departments often have more than a handful of volunteers who could retire at any point, leaving chiefs permanently nervous about staffing levels.
"With Dakota we have an older community," Fire Chief Scott Hoeg said. "There's not a lot of businesses there, so we don't have a lot of younger people moving in."