Volunteer firefighters are truly local heroes.
They are ready to respond when needed to house fires, traffic accidents and wildfires that threaten lives and property. They are indispensable in rural areas that often are far away from assistance from larger paid fire departments.
Unfortunately, the trend in Oklahoma — throughout the United States actually — is there are fewer volunteer firefighters than there were. According National Fire Protection Agency figures, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. dropped from 814,850 to 682,600 from just 2015 to 2017.
Veteran Waukomis Fire Chief Clarence Maly has seen a lot in his 35 years with his department.
“It’s a lot of commitment, especially for people who have families, activities and all that stuff. It’s just hard to get people to do it anymore,” Maly said.
People have more demands on their time, he said. Getting young people to join is especially challenging.
“They’re just not interested like some of the older generations in helping their communities,” he said.
His sentiments were echoed by other fire department leaders.
“There’s not a lot of young people in the community, and that’s nothing to do with the fire department, that’s just where we’re at,” said Curtis Toews, Hunter assistant fire chief. “Everyone’s moving away. Once they graduate, they get married, get better jobs and move on.”
Last year, the Oklahoma Legislature took a step to help the situation. Lawmakers passed a bill that allowed retired firefighters from paid departments to sign on with volunteer departments without risking their pensions. Garber Fire Chief Brady Bond, who sits on the Oklahoma State Fire Association’s legislative committee, lobbied hard for the bill.
One bill to be considered this year would provide a cost-of-living adjustment for retired firefighters, meaning bigger pensions.
What the future holds, though, remains to be seen.
One scenario, Bond said, could be a move toward paid firefighters in rural areas, which could force some rural department to close. Larger departments then would pick up the extra area to cover, but would face the same issues they do now: the lack of new firefighters.
That’s an issue that won’t go away, and one that chiefs throughout the area will continue to address.