Nebraska relies on volunteer fire departments, but they're endangered by staffing challenges

Oct. 22, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Working Fires
Working Fires

Nebraska’s volunteer fire departments face serious problems recruiting volunteers which they fear will decrease the quality of service provided to their communities, according to a new survey conducted by Nebraska Public Media News.

The Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association (NSVFA) provided advisory input, citing the need for an independent survey that could help the public understand current issues relating to emergency response. The survey was created in conjunction with “Working Fires,” a major reporting project and local television documentary produced by Nebraska Public Media News.

While there have been many narratives about volunteer fire and rescue departments having problems getting and keeping members, “there was little to no data available about conditions in Nebraska,” explained Nebraska Public Media News Director Jay Omar. “We wanted a clearer picture of how people dealing with these issues felt about the state of their services.”

All survey results and the television news documentary “Working Fires: Volunteer

Fire Departments in Crisis” are available at

Among the survey’s findings:

  • Responding departments ranked being “unable to recruit new members” as the biggest challenge facing their organizations. Recruiting was described as “difficult” by 62 percent of departments.
  • Asked how current trends in recruiting and retaining members will impact their departments, 59 percent said it will decrease the quality of service provided.
  • Looking ahead to the next five years, three of four volunteer fire departments anticipate extreme weather, including wildfires, will increase the number of emergency calls they answer.

Other topics addressed in the Nebraska Public Media News survey included the effect of aging firefighters, budget issues and the reasons why volunteers join and leave their local volunteer fire departments.

In July 2023, the non-scientific survey was sent to NSVFA member departments across the state. Once the results were tabulated, members of as many as 257 departments answered some or all the questions. There are 449 volunteer fire departments and districts in Nebraska, according to the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s office.

Information from the survey was used to inform the television documentary “Working Fires: Volunteer Fire Departments in Crisis,” as well as radio reporting for Nebraska Public Media News.

The television documentary “Working Fires: Volunteer Fire Departments in Crisis,” premieres at 9 p.m. CT, Thursday, Oct. 26, on Nebraska Public Media. It repeats at 7 p.m. CT, Saturday, Oct. 28 and at 8 p.m. CT, Tuesday, Oct. 31 on Nebraska Public Media’s WORLD television channel.

Graphics by Daniel Wheaton