Working Fires

Volunteer Fire Departments in Crisis

Air Date: 10/26/2023

When emergencies threaten and alarms sound, volunteer firefighters and medical teams stand by, ready and willing to protect citizens in more than 450 Nebraska communities. In fact, nine of every 10 firefighters in the state serve as volunteers. But what happens if people stop volunteering for their local fire departments?

Nebraska Public Media explores the alarming situation “Working Fires: Volunteer Fire Departments in Crisis,” premiering at 9 p.m. CT, Thursday, Oct. 26, on Nebraska Public Media.

The new television documentary reveals that flames, smoke and the risk of injury aren’t the only dangers facing local first responders. Recruiting and retaining volunteers, aging equipment, tight budgets and the shocking increase in extreme weather create a crisis: fewer responders and increasing demand.

Across Nebraska, in communities like Bristow, Gering, Madison, Merriman and Mullen, local volunteer fire departments face an uncertain future. “Working Fires: Volunteer Fire Departments in Crisis” filmed in Bristow, where only six people stand-by to answer fire calls, and most are over 60-years-old. In Madison, nearly 40 volunteers are on the official roster, but only twelve to fifteen are active and most have other full-time jobs.

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

A Nebraska Public Media News survey of fire departments across Nebraska revealed that fire departments had the lowest number of volunteers respond between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Seventy-five percent of the departments the network surveyed cited age as one of the top three reasons for losing members of their department.

“Working Fires: Volunteer Fire Departments in Crisis” reports that the type of emergencies is changing, too. Nationally, two-thirds of emergency dispatch calls were medical calls and accidents, not fire calls. Keeping volunteers in rural areas up to date on best practices and certification for emergency medical response can also be a challenge.

The Mullen Ambulance Service in Hooker County, Nebraska
The Mullen Ambulance Service in Hooker County, Nebraska

Nebraska experienced one of the worst outbreaks of wildfires in history in 2022, and of volunteer fire departments that responded to the Nebraska Public Media News survey, 75 percent anticipate the risk of extreme weather will increase.

The Carter Canyon fire in the rugged Wildcat Hills near Gering was one of the largest in the state’s history and 35 departments came to offer mutual aid.

From 2020 to 2022, the Gering City and Rural Departments responded to 8 major wildfires that blackened tens of thousands of acres. Other Nebraska fires in 2022 required similar coordinated responses.

Nebraska fie crews from respond to a wildfire
Multiple volunteer fire departments respond during the Carter Canyon Fire in 2022. (Photo: Leo Urbanek)

Survey of Nebraska Volunteer Fire Departments