Number of Volunteer Firefighters Falling in Texas

September 30, 2008

Membership among volunteer firefighters in Texas has dropped to levels predating a surge brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks seven years ago, a state official says.

Many found firefighting less glamorous than they thought it would be or opted for less time-consuming volunteer opportunities, Kurt Harris, president of the Texas Fire Marshal’s Association, told the Amarillo Globe-News.

“It’s wonderful if you can run a department with volunteers, but it’s also very difficult,” Harris said.

Nationally, the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased about 8.25 percent since 1984, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. There were about 897,750 volunteers in 1984 compared to about 823,650 in 2006, said Kimberly Ettinger, director of communications for the council.

A recent training event in Canyon, just south of Amarillo in the Panhandle, illustrated the change. What used to be one of the biggest gatherings in the state with more than 1,000 volunteers over two nights drew less than 400 this year.

The numbers are down across a part of the state that made national news with massive wildfires almost three years ago.

In Canyon, a waiting list of those eager to fight fires is gone, and the 30 volunteers the city does have are about 10 short of the ideal number. Potter County, which includes Amarillo, has 60 volunteers when it would prefer about 75.

“It’s just hard to recruit,” said Canyon Fire Chief Mikie Kelley. “While everyone else is enjoying their time at home or working, (the volunteers) stop what they’re doing. They get in their vehicle and come down to the station or the scene.”

Many smaller Panhandle towns have all-volunteer departments, and some of those are suffering. In Sunray, it used to be easy to have the 25 to 30 volunteers that Fire Chief Rocky Rexrode likes to have on staff. Now, membership stands at 18.

“I’ve got a really good group,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade them. (But) I’d like to have more of them.”

Mandatory training requirements implemented by the state several years ago have played a role in the decrease, said Pat Fitzpatrick, assistant fire chief with Potter County Fire-Rescue. Volunteers, for example, must have at least 70 hours of training before fighting structure fires.

Instead of relying strictly on volunteers, many areas across the state are implementing voter-approved Emergency Service Districts, Harris said. Those voters pay a small tax to hire full-time firefighters to supplement volunteer numbers.

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