Survey reveals Nebraska volunteer fire departments struggle to recruit members

Oct. 23, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

Firefighter looks towards burning building during a training exercise.
A volunteer firefighter participates in a training exercise. (Photo: Nebraska Public Media)

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Talk to any number of volunteer firefighters in Nebraska and you’ll quickly pick up on a few trends.

There’s a clear passion for the communities they serve — from Gering to Blair — and a strong belief in the value of volunteering.

Many of them are second or third generation firefighters and plan to pass on the calling to their children.

All while working other full-time jobs.

But in many departments across the state, there aren’t nearly enough volunteers to keep up with the demands for service.

Long-time members are aging out and new ones aren’t taking their place at the same rate.

For departments that deal with calls with stakes as high as life and death, that’s a problem.

In fact, Nebraska Public Media surveyed more than 250 individuals and found that 59 percent of respondents said the quality of service from their local department will decrease if current trends in recruiting and retaining volunteers continues.

Meanwhile, 84 percent of respondents said demands for their department’s services have increased over the last five years.

The number one reason people do not join their local volunteer fire department? Eight in 10 respondents said the time commitment is too much.

Bill Montz, a former vice president of the Nebraska Fire Chiefs Association with more than 40 years of experience as a first responder, said the survey data lines up with what he’s heard and experienced.

“To be on a volunteer fire department, you have to have the same training that a paid firefighter would have,” Montz said. “So in other words, there's a lot of commitment.”

Volunteer firefighters have to manage weekly maintenance of equipment, fundraising, and ongoing training in addition to the initial certification requirements, which often take more than 100 hours.

And once a call goes out in the community, it can still be difficult for volunteers to respond, since most firefighters work other full-time jobs.

“A lot of people work during the day, you know, so when the call goes out, say 10 o'clock in the morning on a weekday, who's going to respond?” Montz said. “That's a common concern.”

To help, the Gering Volunteer Fire Department in the Nebraska panhandle relies on high schoolers to help.

Darrel Vance, who has been a part of the Gering Volunteer Fire Department for 43 years, said the department has started a cadet program in the local high school where students practice a variety of firefighting skills.

“They learned how to run the jaws of life, they learned to put up ladders, and they work on all kinds of different skills,” Vance said.

After their training is complete, Vance said the students are able to join the department.

“We actually let them go in and fight fires and everything with us after they get their task book signed off,” he said.

But even with the help, the Gering Department is still hungry for volunteers.

The town of 8,000 only has 45 members and Vance said the biggest challenge in the department is keeping them on board.

“A lot of them want in, they get in, they work maybe four years, five years, and then they just lose their interest,” Vance said.

But that hasn't been the case for Vance.

His son has been a part of the Gering department for 23 years and his granddaughter has been involved for four.

For many department members across the state, volunteering is passed down from generation to generation.

In the eastern Nebraska village of Snyder — population 254 — there is a waiting list of volunteers wanting to join the local fire department, thanks in part to second and third generation firefighters returning to their hometown.

Daniel Kreikemeier, who has been with the Snyder Volunteer Fire Department for 61 years, said the jobs and industry in Snyder have kept his department strong.

“Our kids and grandkids all stay in the city,” Kreikemeier said. “If we didn't have the industry, they'd all be leaving.”

Kreikemeier said most employers in town let their firemen take off work for calls. Out of the 30-man department, more than 50 percent of the team that is responding to each call are volunteers.

“We're way above average with that many numbers for our size of the city,” Kreikemeier said.

In Blair, a town 40 miles east and 30 times larger than Snyder, volunteer firefighter Brenda Jenny said most people who move in don’t even realize the department is made up of volunteers.

“We have over 1000 calls a year for our department, and people that are moving into Blair, they don't realize that we're a volunteer fire department, and it doesn't really matter,” Jenny said. “All that matters is when they make that 911 Call for help, that help comes.”

But despite challenges in recruiting volunteers, most departments said they feel supported by their community.

According to Nebraska Public Media’s survey, nearly 60 percent of respondents said their community fully supports their volunteer fire and rescue services, while only four percent said their community doesn’t support their department.

You can learn more about the demands being placed on the state’s volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders in a Nebraska Public Media News documentary premiering this Thursday at 9 p.m. Central Time.