Across the United States 71% of all firefighters are volunteers.
Nationally the overall number of volunteers is declining, but Newschannel 6 has uncovered troubling numbers on their way up, the rising age of firefighters in rural departments. That would mean just about every department that protects you in Texoma.
Former Wichita Falls Fire Chief Ronnie James said, "There are many communities that just can't afford a paid fire department and the only way they can get any protection at all is through the volunteer fire service."
"You get into a situation where you literally can't run another truck," said Mark Strenski of the Bowman VFD.
Volunteer Fire Departments save lives and property, and do so on a regular basis.
The worst fire season, and the worst drought in history unfortunately has proven that to us over and over this spring and summer. That danger will increase as we head into the dry winter months.
Volunteer Fire Departments play a vital role in your protection when flames break out, but the men and women who risk their lives on a sometimes daily basis are aging. Former Wichita Falls Fire Chief and 50-year career firefighter Ronnie James recognizes the problem and is watching the volunteer fire service change before his eyes. "We have the guys that have been in the volunteer fire service that are starting to age and get out of it," says James.
Executive Director of the State Fireman's and Fire Marshal's Association of Texas Chris Barron told Newschannel 6, "We went from about 880,000 volunteer firefighters across the U.S. to about 800,000 firefighters in a decade. We lost about 80,000 firefighters."
The problem is not just age but it's replacing those who have gotten to old to hit the fire lines and have stepped down..
James said, "We're not filling in at the bottom because our society is so different today."
In the rural areas you're gonna have a more older population that's continuing to volunteer and support their communities. They just don't have the numbers to draw from" said Burkburnett VFD Fire Chief Rodney Ryalls.
Of the Volunteer Fire Departments Newschannel 6 spoke to, all but one said they need more volunteers on a consistent basis.
We can always us more help there is no doubt about it," said Ryalls.
Burkburnett Fire Chief Rodney Ryalls says he's lucky. He has a number of younger volunteers, but keeping them is a problem despite the fact he's seen more interest. "With the wildfire season and more people see the need and you know they kind of come in and get involved, and then some folks stay and some of them find out it's just not for them," said Ryalls.
The Executive Director of the State Fireman's and Fire Marshal's Association of Texas said that the average age of a firefighter in Texas is right at 32-years old, but he said it's an ironic number for rural departments who's average age is higher. The departments with the older members are challenged to find the right mix between older and younger firefighters. So where does that process begin? "I think it just starts at home," said Mark Strenski with the Bowman VFD. "The older guys still have a little bit of a volunteer attitude whereas the younger guys, the younger folks the younger generation are more what's in it for me. What can I get out of it? Where obviously we're not paying so this is about as selfless as you can get."
Ronnie James said, "The idea of being in the volunteer fire service, that takes a lot of time, a lot of training, it's dangerous and to recruit and have the retention for that younger volunteer is very difficult."
Texas Forest Service Regional Fire Coordinator Michael McGuire says the trend is starting to show more youth showing interest and following through to replace some of the aging firefighters who are stepping down. "It's clear that lot of the volunteers have older members," says McGuire. "But, I think we've seen a trend in the last couple of years that we are starting to see more younger men and women coming out to serve their communities."
Those who work on a daily basis with volunteer fire departments, are working to get the word out that volunteers don't always have to be the men and women who are on the trucks knocking down the damaging flames.
Mark Strenski said, "Some folks can make a difference just by writing a check. We're perfectly happy with that. We're ecstatic with that."
Those who train volunteer firefighters are teaching them how to deal with the aging population to keep them serving their communities. Chris Barron said he teaches then to, "find alternative ways for those people who might not be of the greatest physical ability to help fight fires but they can do things other than fight fires. They can do payroll or whatever they can do as long as they have other talents that the fire department can use."
As departments continue to keep working to get younger volunteers to replace those who are aging, Newschannel 6 wanted to know what the training is like for volunteers. So we visited a Fire School for volunteers in part two of this Newschannel 6 Special Report.