It’s getting harder in many Minnesota communities to find volunteer firefighters.
A case in point is White Bear Lake, says Tim Vadnais, chief of the city’s fire department, which operates on a “paid on call” model. That means firefighters are paid around $12 per hour during emergencies but volunteer their time for training and special events.
“If I go back to when I first got on the department, there were many firefighters who were the single wage earners in the family,” Vadnais said. “Now that has changed to where both people work and have children. They are making good money and like to spend their money on toys and enjoy the cabin and so on. It has changed from the early 1970s until now.”
According to the State Fire Marshal’s office, the vast majority of Minnesota’s 792 fire departments are staffed by a combination of paid on call firefighters and volunteer, unpaid firefighters. Only 10 departments are fully staffed by so-called “career” firefighters.
Yet, in some cases, communities are having a tougher time drawing volunteers. “Many are,” said Rob Boe, public safety project coordinator for the League of Minnesota Cities, who noted there are exceptions, departments with brimming waiting lists. He said sometimes the age of a particular population is the issue. “We’ve got part of the state where they don’t have a lot of people of the age to be firefighters available.”
More onerous training requirements can be a factor too, Boe said. He also thinks there is a “generational issue,” meaning that today’s younger people are less likely to give their time than generations prior. “I think it’s a component of it,” he said. “Part of it isn’t all bad. We have parents devoted to their children and both working hard.”
The generational issue comes into play for other volunteer-heavy endeavors as well, as Dave Peters wrote here recently.
In White Bear Lake, which provides fire and ambulance service to a handful of surrounding communities, firefighters receive benefits other than the $12 per hour, like pensions. But that’s not necessarily enough to draw candidates anymore, so Vadnais has added additional fringe benefits, including health savings accounts and cheap houses for rent.
The department used to offer small rooms in the fire station for $50 per month. But in recent years, White Bear Lake has bought homes close to its fire stations that rent for $200 per month per occupant plus utilities. “As houses came up for sale, we thought this is a good time to purchase them,” Vadnais said. “Rather than live in a 12 by 12 room in the fire station, it’s more desirable to live in a house instead. It’s more of an inducement. It helped recruit for the department and went over very well. I wish we had about four more.”
White Bear Lake, like a lot of communities these days, is being creative when it comes to public safety in the face of tighter budgets. Some have folded their police departments and instead rely on the county sheriff for protection or have partnered with nearby cities to share police or fire services and save dollars. Still others are working harder to lure volunteers.
“A couple of years ago, our finance director did a study on other cities our size, looking at their fire department budgets,” said Vadnais. “There is a west metro city the same size as White Bear Lake that provides fire but not ambulance service. That city has a career fire department. We have paid on call that provides fire and ambulance for close to 50,000 people in six communities. Our budget is $2 million less than that west metro city’s. It behooves me to keep this an unpaid department as long as I can.”
A year ago, the White Bear Lake fire department landed a FEMA grant that allowed it to ramp up recruitment efforts. The five year grant paid for the health savings accounts for firefighters and for advertising. It also allowed the department to hire a full time recruitment and retention staffer. “It’s going well,” said Vadnais. “Our maximum level of firefighters is 55. We were down to 45, but with the next hire, we’ll be up to our maximum amount.”
Vadnais said it isn’t necessarily the wage or other financial benefits that draw people to the team, but rather, “altruism.” He said, “People want to serve their community. Once they get in, they get hooked. There is no job better than to be able to go out and help someone at their worst every day of the week.”
So, are people becoming less altruistic? “Yes, absolutely,” he said.