Arkansas Fire Chiefs: It’s Harder to Get Volunteers

September 8, 2010

Rural fire chiefs in Arkansas say they are finding it harder to recruit younger members to be part of rural fire departments.

The time commitment coupled with the lack of financial benefits is taking its toll on area emergency services.

Charles Mitchael, fire chief of White Bluff-Rye Hill Rural Fire Department in Sebastian County, said most people are day time workers, and their jobs are where they make their money.

“We’ve been seeing this probably for the last five to seven years,” Mitchael, 67, said about the decrease. “We’re just not seeing the younger troops.”

With little to no incentive, it’s hard to recruit, Mitchael said.

He’s served as a rural volunteer firefighter for 30 years and he receives $142 a month before taxes in retirement funds. That’s only because he opted to pay $3.40 a month for the benefit.

Some younger people with the economy the way it is can’t even afford that, Mitchael said.

Chief Roger Osborne of the Booneville Rural Fire Department in Logan County said the average age of his crew – about 20 firefighters – is around 48.

“The older ones are getting to where they can’t anymore and younger people aren’t volunteering,” Osborne said. “They’re trying to spread themselves out too thin.”

At house fires, 15 to 20 firefighters are needed, and often that means depending on other area rural fire departments to have enough people, Osborne said.

For eastern Oklahoma, it’s the same drill, according to Amy Howard, secretary/treasurer of both the Post Mountain Volunteer Fire Department and the firefighter association in LeFlore County.

“Very few people seem to have that volunteer spirit,” Howard said. “And there’s no incentive to keep you there.”

She suspects another reason is that 20 years ago there not a lot of litigation against volunteer firefighters. Today, it’s a different story

Many would-be volunteers find the training requirements burdensome, especially if they have to travel to classes without reimbursement, Mitchael added.

Central City Fire Chief Jamie Sharum doesn’t have the same problem as other departments do, so far, he said. His department is the “oddball,” in the county with half of its volunteers under the age of 25.

Sharum said while his department has a lot of younger firefighters now that doesn’t mean he’s not worried.

“It is a concern,” Sharum said. “People just don’t want to work for free anymore.”

Information from: Southwest Times Record

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