Firefighting is expensive. In the past 30 years, the costs for key pieces of equipment have jumped more than fivefold. And that’s the least of it. The time and training to become a certified firefighter have increased. Volunteers, who make up roughly 70 percent of fire department personnel, not only pay for their own training but also face additional indirect costs, such as temporary lodging, lost time at work and medical expenses. Not surprisingly, a growing number of localities are confronting a significant decline in volunteer firefighters.
A recent report from Pennsylvania, where 96 percent of all fire companies are fully staffed by volunteers, spells out the problem. The state’s 72,000 volunteer firefighters provide services with an estimated annual tax savings value of $6 billion. But those savings and systems, as the report notes, “are creating increasingly serious challenges,” including a decline in the number of active volunteer firefighters (down from 152,000 in 1985 to 72,000 today); difficulties in funding, with volunteers spending 60 percent or more of their available hours on fundraising activities; and unnecessary and inefficient duplication of firefighting equipment.