More often than not, the men and women out on the front lines in rural areas, responding to fires, rescues and wrecks, are volunteers. In Oklahoma alone, 85 percent of firefighters are volunteers.
While these individuals spend countless hours training and responding to calls exactly as a paid department would, they’re often putting their lives in danger with very little return other than the satisfaction of public service — making recruiting efforts difficult.
“(Numbers of volunteers) have continued to decline in the last 10 to 15 years,” said Love County Fire Department Chairman Chris Kirk. “Our recruiting and retention —we’ve really struggled with that, along with probably everybody else in the state. The trend is the same all across the country for volunteers.”
Whereas paid fire departments have a certain amount of members they are required to maintain, it’s the rural areas that rely on volunteer fire departments that tend to suffer shortages the most.
Around 150 volunteers make up the Love County Fire Department, which consists of more than 13 smaller departments serving a population of 9,000 — and it wasn’t very long ago that that number was closer to 200, Kirk said.
The numbers are similar in neighboring counties, with the Dickson Volunteer Fire Department averaging about 15 to 20 volunteers covering an 88 acre fire district, said Fire Chief Clarence Perryman.
There are countless obstacles to increasing numbers of volunteers, Kirk said. However, state legislatures are attempting to alleviate one of those barriers with a new house bill recently signed into law.
House Bill 2051, which took full effect Oct. 31, 2019, allows retired firefighters who are already a part of the state’s pension program to return to service in volunteer fire departments without their service affecting their current retirement benefit and without it counting as an accrued retirement benefit against the state’s pension plan.
Oklahoma House Majority Leader Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, said in a press release, he expects the new bill to increase the number of volunteer firefighters joining rural fire departments.
“Saving lives and property is behind my commitment to continue to increase the number of firefighters who serve our state, especially our volunteers who help run our rural fire service programs,” Sanders said in the press release. “By allowing those who are willing to serve to do so without harming the state’s pension program gives us more resources to protect our citizens and our communities.”
State law previously prohibited willing volunteers above the age of 45 from becoming firefighters because the state’s pension and retirement plan could not afford them.
Kirk, who is himself a retired firefighter from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said he had been fighting the previous law since he started his career in the fire service 32 years ago.
“It was the craziest thing I’d ever heard,” Kirk said. “Someone would put in 30 years as a volunteer or even as a paid firefighter somewhere and gain all of this experience, all of this knowledge and then at the age of 52 or 55 or whatever age they retired at it was like ‘Okay, that’s it. You can’t help anywhere, you can’t go volunteer anywhere’.”
Individuals who have retired from and who have prior experience at a fire department bring irreplaceable experience and knowledge to volunteer organizations, Kirk said.
With the new law in effect, retired firefighters could help solve one of the main obstacles to volunteers, Kirk said.
Many of those who volunteer in Love County and at other volunteer departments in the area have to work around the schedule of their day jobs, substantially decreasing the number of individuals who can respond to calls during this time.
“Emergencies happen at 11 o’clock during the morning and 11 o’clock during the day when most people are at work,” Kirk said. “Most of our volunteers still work, still have families, they’re the carpenters and the plumbers and the business owners and the city workers — they’re the volunteers that we have.”
With a full 88 acre fire district that only includes one mile within Dickson city limits and a town workforce whose hours often don’t match up with those of a volunteer firefighter, Perryman said this can be a big problem in the area.
“That’s the problem we have at Dickson. we don’t have any industries that are in Dickson that we could pull employees from that would be allowed to leave their work and respond to calls. We pretty much have to rely on who’s off from their real jobs to be able to respond.”
Though he can’t anticipate the exact growth in numbers, Kirk said he expects the new law to be beneficial to volunteer fire departments across the state.
“As a fire chief of a small, rural fire department and as a chairman of a county department, I am very, very thankful for our state legislature making that wise decision to change that,” Kirk said.
In the future, Kirk said he hopes to see more volunteer retention ideas -- some of which he says have been brought up in the past -- put into practice.
Offering volunteers something in return for their service, such as an annual free hunting and fishing license or free water bill, would likely help address declining numbers, he said.
“Because of all the things that they’re doing — training, making calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Kirk said. “This is something that’s different than coaching a baseball team, or coaching the soccer team — which is all great, great volunteers and I thank everyone of them for doing those things. But it is different being a firefighter, this is all very dangerous stuff.”