Of the 1.2 million firefighters in the U.S., nearly 70 percent are volunteers, and shortages are at an all-time high, according to a 2016 report by the National Fire Protection Association. Volunteer fire departments have seen a 15 percent drop over the last 30 years.
Volunteer fire departments also save municipal and county governments nearly $140 billion each year, as stated in the report.
Tim Smith, chief of West Carlisle Fire Department, said his department has been hit hard by this shortage of volunteers.
"Ten years ago, I had a waiting list for volunteers. They were knocking on the door wanting to volunteer and I had to put them on hold because I just didn't have enough equipment to outfit all of those folks and it's not that way anymore, and think we will continue to see that trend. What is the fix? Not really sure," Smith said.
According to the NFPA report, 95 percent of volunteer firefighters serve in areas with less than 25,000 residents, protecting approximately 115 million Americans.
Randy Teeter, chief of New Deal Fire and EMS, said as the times have changed, the supply of volunteer firefighters has as well.
"It wasn't that way 20 years ago. It wasn't that way 15 years ago. We've since gotten the equipment because all the training in the world wouldn't do you a lot of good if you didn't have any equipment. Now we've got the equipment, we have the training, now it's just getting the people to come help us out," Teeter said.
He said the main reason for this is the significant time commitment away from work and family.
"They have a hard time committing to that. It's like Tim said, a lot of this is not because they don't want to, they just can't. They don't have the time to commit like they're needed to. So that's harder to do," Teeter said.
Smith, with West Carlisle, added the internet is how the next generation primarily receives its information, as he said one of the ways to help address this shortage is to utilize social media to the fullest extent.
"We rely a lot on social media. I mean, that's probably how the last 10 volunteers I've signed on... that's how they found us, which is social media. Because we want folks to see that we're active and they can be part of that. That's also how a lot of the ways we get our junior firefighters in our program," Smith said.
Both West Carlisle and New Deal have junior firefighter programs to give young people the chance to learn about rural fire and the environment of working in emergency situations.
Teeter said reaching out to them while they are young can go a long way in creating the next generation of volunteers.
"You get them involved when they're 13, 14 years old. You get them involved with the fire department, and I'll be honest with you, I've been doing this for 40 years. I can't imagine my life without it. We tried to get the same thing with those kids. If we can get them at 13, 14, 15 years old, we'll get that firefighting blood in them," Teeter said.
Smith said not all volunteers in the department are firefighters, as he added there are multiple positions available.
"If you're an accountant, I've got a job for you. If you're a mechanic, I've got a job for you. If you know how to repair heaters, air conditioners, plumbing and electricity, I've got a job for you," Smith said. "There's something for everyone involved and we want involvement. We want the community."
He said volunteering allows you to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and the benefit is irreplaceable.
"You won't realize the rewards until you get there. You may not get a paycheck, but your reward for volunteering and helping those who are having the worst day of their life, to that point, is simply amazing," Smith said. "It's beyond comprehension of how that makes you feel, as a human."