A task force has laid out a 10-point plan to address the membership crisis among volunteer fire departments threatening fire protection throughout Delaware.
“The men and women of Delaware’s volunteer fire service make a difference in the lives of Delawareans every day,” said Warren Jones, executive manager of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association. “We hope more people will see the need to serve their communities and join this great group of dedicated individuals. We are looking forward to the task force’s recommendations to turn the tide in the decline in volunteerism.”
“The decline in new volunteers is alarming, as Delaware’s firefighters provide an invaluable service to our communities,” said Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a member of the task force and Senate minority whip.
“The safety of our constituents depends on a healthy and robust volunteer firefighting network,” he said. “The recommendations from the Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention Task Force aim to increase volunteerism and deserve further consideration. I look forward to working with the task force’s chairs, elected officials and organizations such as the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association in achieving that goal.”
“The wall that has protected Delaware families for generations is being threatened by apathy and neglect as our volunteer fire companies struggle to recruit new members and raise the public donations they depend on for their very survival,” said Sen. Bruce Ennis, co-chair of the task force and a life member of Citizens’ Hose Company No. 1 in Smyrna.
• The task force, set up by the Legislature in 2019 with members from both parties and other stakeholders, came up with these ideas:
• Develop a recruitment and retention training class at the Delaware State Fire School to share best practices across departments.
• Establish an AmeriCorps Program that would assign full-time members to companies in all three counties, with stipends paid by county governments.
• Add a training administrator to the fire school to manage the AmeriCorps program.
• Expand the Sussex County Operation GEM cadet firefighter program for children 10-15 to all school districts.
• Launch a volunteer firefighter recruitment website and marketing program paid for and administered by the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association.
• Promote the advantages and career opportunities that come with joining volunteer fire companies to youth in Wilmington.
• Offer public safety classes in firefighting, EMT and/or EMR at Delaware’s vocational technical school districts.
• Make courses taught by the fire school eligible for college credits.
• Offer tuition reimbursement to Delaware students who volunteer with a local fire company for a set number of hours.
• Increase the for volunteer fire company members from $400 to $1,000.
Volunteer firefighters are in decline nationwide. Enrollment in the entry-level training course at the fire school fell to fewer than 190 in 2019 – less than half the number a decade earlier.
“Delaware’s volunteer fire companies face a difficult challenge,” said State House Minority Leader Danny Short (R-Seaford) a past chief of the Seaford Fire Department. “The inability of many companies to recruit sufficient numbers of new members to their ranks has been an ongoing problem for years. I think many of the suggestions made by the task force have merit and may help to turn the tide. I look forward to further exploring them so we can maintain the historical dependability of a system protecting most Delaware communities.”
In Delaware, 57% of fire departments are mostly volunteers, with more than 40% all-volunteer.
The majority of the firefighters who respond to emergencies up and down our state aren’t paid for their services,” said task force chair Larry Mitchell, a 52-year life member of the Elsmere Fire Company and the House majority whip. “These men and women do this because of a desire to serve their communities.”
The task force found that most volunteer fire departments receive only a 12% response to annual fund drive campaigns.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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