Volunteer fire departments struggling to find volunteers

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EDGAR, Wis. (WSAW) -- Rural communities rely on volunteer fire departments to be there when disaster shows its face. Many of those departments are finding it difficult to find volunteers to join their ranks and it’s proving to be an issue that can impact entire communities.

Edgar Fire Department truck. Sept. 19, 2019. (WSAW photo)

On September 14, 10 different fire departments responded to a warehouse fire in Marshfield. However, it wasn’t the size of the fire that made calling so many departments necessary.

“A lot of it had to do with a lot of low availability,” said Hewitt Area Fire Chief Brian Hafermann. “So, it relied on more departments to get the job done.”

In Edgar, the volunteer fire department is making due with the change in times.

“Years past, you could have a volunteer that would take a whole week’s shift,” said Edgar Fire Chief David Wagener. “Now, I’m happy if I can get someone to come in and take a 12-hour shift for me.”

Wagener and the Edgar Fire Department aren’t alone. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, more than 90% of fire departments in Wisconsin are all volunteer or rely mostly on volunteer firefighters, with many of them struggling to find people to join.

Lawmakers are aware of the problem, with legislators introducing Senate Bill 287, which would create three refundable tax credits for volunteer firefighters. The first credit would include $300 for responders who have served for at least one year and $600 for responders who have served for more than 5 years. The second of the three credits is equal to $20 for each hour, up to 25 hours, that a responder attends training or education courses, with the third credit being reimbursed for mileage or other expenses.

NewsChannel 7 reached out to Senator Patrick Testin’s office for an update on the bill, which he helped introduce. It has yet to be passed, but lawmakers hope to gain enough traction to pass it through this fall, with the idea that it will encourage more people to join a volunteer department.

In the meantime, departments are having to get creative with how they recruit new volunteers, including taking to social media and making appearances at schools and town picnics.

Wagener says there is a great honor in being a firefighter, and serving your community.

“There is an honor and a trust that goes along with being a firefighter, or EMT or policeman for that matter,” said Wagener. “I think that’s what moves a lot of volunteers forward in their career, is having that pride and knowing they helped their neighbors in a situation that they needed.”