Indiana’s shortage of volunteer firefighters is sending departments down other paths

TRAFALGAR, Indiana — Across Indiana and across the country, volunteer fire departments are battling with their most important resource — volunteers.

This leads different departments down different paths. In 2023 the Trafalgar Fire Service made a major transition to part-time work and pay. The department has been active on a voluntary basis for 70 years. Now these volunteers can be paid and the station will be staffed 24 hours a day by two firefighters/EMTs.

Trafalgar Fire Chief Mark Dunn said they are now able to respond to run times much more quickly.

“It will cut our call-to-site time by 5 to 10 minutes,” Dunn said.

Dunn said there will always be two firefighters at the fire station, ready to respond to any emergency. A supervisor will also work from home and be ready to respond. This allows Trafalgar FD to always operate with a crew of at least three people.

Shifts last 12 hours and run from 7am to 7pm and then from 7pm to 7am. Fire paramedics are paid $15 an hour, and firefighters make $12 an hour.

Volunteers from across the region continue to be called in for larger emergencies. Dunn said the department now has a 33-strong team. Eight new members recently joined, but recruiting volunteers has been difficult.

“We don’t have people kicking the door down to get in,” Dunn said. “Like I said, we’re not losing the volunteers, but we’re not letting them come.”

The hope is that this change will also help with recruitment.

“It’s only 10 days a year, but having people on the station 24/7 has meant that a lot of volunteers come by more often,” Dunn said.

The Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association sees recruiting problems across the state.

“It’s terribly difficult to recruit volunteers,” said Larry Curl, the IVFA’s lobbyist.

Curl said this has been a problem for volunteer fire departments across the county for years. People just don’t volunteer for this work like they used to.

“Part of it is they just don’t have the time, part of it is they just don’t see any value in being in a volunteer system,” Curl said. “You don’t get any of this at all.”

The Miami County Mexican Volunteer Fire Department sees these problems. The department posted a notice on Facebook on Jan. 3 that it was suspending service because the fire safety contract was not signed by city trustee Reginald Wolfe.

The post reads, “As of January 1, 2023, the Fire Department of Mexico is currently unable to legally respond to calls of any kind because the Municipality Trustee has not signed a 2023 fire safety contract with the fire department to ensure the city’s fire safety.” to be offered by Mexico or the residents of Jefferson Township.”

Wolfe explained over the phone to FOX59 that the main reason the contract wasn’t signed is that the department “couldn’t guarantee adequate manpower.”

Wolfe said the volunteer fire department can’t make calls during the day and most firefighters are stationed miles away in Peru, so response times are questionable.

Wolfe said it was the Mexican Fire Department’s decision to stop the runs. He said the department could have responded further during contract negotiations.

Mexico Volunteer Fire Department chief Tony Reich has not returned calls from FOX59.

Curl said a lack of volunteers could lead to the closure of fire departments.

“If a small department can no longer deliver, someone else has to take over that service,” Curl said.

Wolfe said while Mexico VFD is unresponsive, the city and community is being covered by fire departments in Peru, Denver and New Waverly.

Curl said they are discussing legislation with the Indiana General Assembly that would encourage people to become volunteer firefighters. Curl said one idea is to give volunteers income tax breaks. He also proposes a pension fund for volunteer firefighters to keep them engaged.

He hopes people will understand how important these volunteers are across Indiana.

“Without us, there are hundreds of thousands of people without service,” he said.

If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter for a department in your area, Dunn says the first step is to contact that department. At Trafalgar FD they help interested people through the training.