Volunteer firefighters are getting older. It could be a life-or-death issue
Jerry Scarborough is 69 years old, but that doesn't stop him from jumping behind the wheel of a fire engine when there's an emergency.
Frequently, the 20-plus-year member of the Darlington Volunteer Fire Company in rural Maryland isn't even the oldest firefighter on the scene.
On one call last year, he raced to extinguish a blaze engulfing a tractor in a field, but found a situation that wasn't quite that exciting.
"It turned out to be a little John Deere lawn mower," Scarborough explained.
Buddy Tester and Robert Worthington of the neighboring Level Volunteer Fire Company had also raced to the scene.
Tester is 76 years old. Worthington is 87.
As firefighters age, the problem grows
Two-thirds of U.S. firefighters are volunteers, who can face anything from a house fire with people trapped inside, to a pile-up on the highway or a leak of hazardous chemicals.
Fewer young people in recent years have signed up to take on those challenges and that poses serious risks to people and their homes, especially in rural areas.
There may not be a fire crew nearby during an emergency and it's increasingly likely to have older firefighters respond.
People may find themselves waiting "45 minutes for a fire truck to show up when their house is on fire," said Steve Hirsch, head of the National Volunteer Fire Council, or they may be stuck for more than half an hour during a medical emergency when every second counts.
"People have to understand that if they don't go out and volunteer, that could happen," said Hirsch.
More than a third of volunteers in small communities were over the age of 50 in 2020, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That compares to 1987, when only 15.9% were older than 50.
Leaning on older volunteers has its own risks, Hirsch believes.
"In our line of work, cardiac events are always a major issue, and the older you get, the more likely you're going to have a cardiac event," Hirsch said. "That affects the crew's safety, affects the public's safety and our ability to respond."
Where are the young volunteers?
The heart of the problem: fewer people willing to put on the boots and helmets and spend long hours at the firehouse.
There were just 676,9000 volunteers in the U.S. in 2020, compared to 897,750 in 1984.
In the same time, emergency call volumes tripled.
For Worthington, who has been a firefighter for 70 years, the role has changed over the decades.
"The big difference between then and now – if we joined tonight we could ride the truck tomorrow. It was none of this stuff. You got to do all the in-house training before you can ride," he said.
The demands can be rough, said Tester, a firefighter of 60 years.
"I'd hate to be a young kid today to join the fire department," he said. "And I feel sorry for them."
Hirsch says that juggling volunteering with everyday life dissuades people from signing up.
"I don't think it has anything to do with young people not wanting to volunteer," he said.
The NVFC lists other reasons that make recruiting difficult.
Potential volunteers may not be able to afford to live where a department is based or they may have a lower sense of pride in community.
Also, some companies won't allow employees to leave work to run out on calls.
Some young people are stepping up
There are some young firefighters at Darlington, however.
20-year-old Ben Shrader had very personal reasons for joining.
"I witnessed my dad, he went into cardiac arrest in front of me and my mother," he said. "I just felt so helpless."
A crew from another department arrived to try to revive his father, but were unsuccessful.
"When it was his time it was his time," Shrader added. "I spent a little while not knowing really what to do, until one day I said 'screw it, I want to do something with my life.'"
He signed up at Darlington, following advice from a friend of his dad who also volunteers there.
For 18-year-old Sam Santelli, the motivation is different.
"My grandfather is a Baltimore city fireman, he pushed me into it," he said. "It was either this or the military, so I chose this."
Also, time spent at the firehouse is time spent staying out of trouble.
"Being here keeps you straight and in line," he said.
The benefits of older volunteers
Both young men see the value of having older volunteers around.
"They teach you a lot, especially on the calls," said Santelli.
They also are role models, "teaching us respect and integrity lessons," he added.
Shrader is still surprised by the older volunteers' abilities on the fireground.
"Even if we think they might not be in their prime, they can still show us a thing or two," he said. "They kick our butts on what we're doing!"
They also can make judgment calls and decisions based on years of experience, he said.
"They've seen plenty of stuff, so they know when 'hey, we should probably get out of here' or 'hey, go check there's no-one inside here,'" he said.
Scarborough knows his department needs more young people like Santelli and Shrader.
"It's a problem and to me, so many kids, and including my own grandchildren, some of them, they're just not coming out and wanting to volunteer," he said. "We need people badly, and I wish more people would be interested in doing this."
But that's a call the NVFC's Hirsch believes people will respond to.
"I have faith in the American people that once we tell them we need help, they will be there."
Lisa Lambert edited this story for digital and radio.
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