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Disaster Prep and First Response

Decline in Volunteer Firefighters Impacts Communities Nationwide

Photo: Courtesy of Matt Chesin

For years the dramatic decline in the number of volunteer firefighters, particularly young ones, has been threatening the ability of small departments to provide an essential public service.

Most people may not think this potential crisis impacts them, however almost 70 percent of firefighters across the nation are volunteers. And, it’s not just about fighting fires since most calls are for emergency medical services.

Several years ago the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported a majority of volunteer firefighters in the United States are over the age of 50. And while the number of on-call firefighters is decreasing, the demand for fire and rescue services is increasing — especially for EMS.

Some volunteer fire service statistics

  • As of February 2020 NFPA says there are an estimated 29,705 U.S. fire departments and 19,112 of them are all volunteer. 
  • National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and NFPA report there are approximately 1,115,000 firefighters across the country and 745,000 (or 67 percent) are volunteers. 
  • NVFC and NFPA also state the time donated by volunteer firefighters saves communities across the country an estimated $46.9 billion per year.

Recruitment obstacles

Back in 1980, a firefighter needed only 36 hours of training. Today that number has grown to hundreds of hours to obtain firefighter certification depending on the state. Earning the certification can take up to a year for someone working a regular job and taking the training in the evenings.

Because fire departments have expanded the scope of their duties to include answering emergency medical calls, many firefighters also are emergency medical technicians, which requires another 100 to 250+ hoursof training.

Plus the estimated cost to train and equip a firefighter can exceed $20,000 so it is a major investment for both volunteer firefighters as well as for communities.

But without volunteers, the fire departments can’t offer the fire and rescue protection to residents they are commissioned to offer. Aside from the safety repercussions, insurance service office ratings can cause home insurance rates for homeowners to go up several hundred dollars a year in communities without a fire department or volunteer fire department. 

Get involved

Something the COVID-19 outbreak and recent riots have demonstrated to the public is during an emergency or disaster there may be a delay before public safety officials can arrive on scene so people should learn some basic preparedness, medical and response skills.

Some programs and resources for civilians, civic clubs, businesses, faith-based organizations and others include:

  • Fire Corps — A national initiative to recruit community members into local fire and EMS departments to perform non-emergency roles allowing department members to focus on training and emergency response while at the same time increasing the services and programs the department can offer. Fire Corps is a component of the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizen Corps initiative and is administered on a national level by the NVFC. For more information, visit
  • Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) — Educates volunteers about disaster preparedness for the hazards that may impact their area and trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations. CERT offers a consistent, nationwide approach to volunteer training and organization that professional responders can rely on during disaster situations, allowing them to focus on more complex tasks. Learn more at
  • Fire is Everyone’s Fight® — A national initiative of the U.S. Fire Administration to reduce home fire injuries, deaths and property loss by changing how people think about fire and fire prevention. Learn how to help your fire department increase community awareness about preventing home fires at
  • USFRA Family Preparedness ebook — Tips on what people should think about and do before, during and after several types of emergencies and disasters, as well as how to administer basic first aid. Download a free 62-page ebook at
  • And finally, any local departments needing help recruiting and retaining personnel, the NVFC’s Make Me A Firefighter™ program has resources, tools, and customizable outreach materials for agencies at

Find more resources for agencies and the public at and

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