ELKHART — The lack of volunteers at area fire departments is concerning for many area fire chiefs, who over the span of their careers have seen numbers drop significantly.
Described as a job that takes passion and drive, departments are struggling to find enough volunteer firefighters, so they are forced to hire more paid firefighters. At the Osolo Township Fire Department, which has a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters, Chief Mike Smith said he has seen volunteer numbers drop from 40 in 1999 to just the six currently on the roster.
"We used to only have one paid person per shift," he said. "With our volunteer staffing so low we are having to rely heavily on paid staffing now."
The same story is playing out in other volunteer driven departments. Baugo Township Fire Chief Brian Gonzales said that in 2001 his department, which also utilizes a combination of full-time paid and volunteer staffing, had 35 volunteer firefighters, now his department is down to just seven.
At the Cleveland Township Fire Department, which also utilizes some full-time firefighters, volunteer staffing is down to 15. The ideal staffing level would be 25 to 30, according to Chief Richard Newman.
Smith said that with lower volunteer numbers it means there is more work for everyone whenever an emergency call comes in.
"The low volunteer staffing is forcing the department to have to look at ways of getting more money to hire more paid workers," said Smith.