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It's getting harder to recruit firefighter volunteers

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

About 70% of all fire departments around the country are staffed entirely by volunteers. They answer emergency calls and, at times, are asked to risk their lives to help keep their communities safe. But since the 1980s, the number of calls has tripled, while the number of volunteers has fallen. Peter Nelson is chief of Fire Company No. 1 in Accord, N.Y., about two hours north of Manhattan. And he joins us now.

Chief Nelson, thanks so much for being with us.

PETER NELSON: Oh, thanks for having me on. I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: Is it hard for you to recruit volunteers?

NELSON: It's always a challenge. It's one of the biggest challenges we have. People, I think, don't understand often the commitment of time and effort and training that goes into becoming a volunteer. It's not just like you come down to the firehouse, fill out an application, and we put you in boots and put you behind the wheel of a truck.

SIMON: Yeah.

NELSON: It takes a big commitment for any volunteer.

SIMON: How do you persuade people to volunteer? I mean, how do you say, this is an important job; you might be asked to risk your life for a neighbor or a stranger; and by the way, it's all volunteer?

NELSON: First of all, it's a very rewarding endeavor. There is nothing quite like being able to help one of your neighbors. We also have a strong tradition. You know, there - our firefighters are often fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, cousins. There's a tradition that goes down through families for many years. It fulfills a - sort of a space in people's lives, sometimes for students in, like, the local high school that may not fit into the honor society or the drama club. And they can find a home with us, an organization that really appreciates them and will train them and give them discipline and make them a different part of the community.

SIMON: Chief, what inspired you to volunteer, I gather, 19 years ago?

NELSON: Yeah. I was unsure, but a neighbor in a neighboring town said, you know what? You should go down there and talk to them because they're always looking for members. And I found it to be a good fit. And I have to say, it's been an incredible experience for me. It's been a life-changing experience for me. When I'm here at home, I can respond, and I can leave my house, go down to the fire station, pick up an apparatus and respond to some emergency, wherever it is. And that's a big need, because we're not sitting at the firehouse waiting to slide down a fire pole, where people...

SIMON: Yeah.

NELSON: ...You know, one of the big misunderstandings is that people don't recognize the fact that we are home and we, you know, leave our meals and our families and get up in the middle of the night to help people.

SIMON: New York's governor and legislature recently approved a 10% property tax exemption for volunteer firefighters. Do you think that will help?

NELSON: I hope so. I've been working locally here - because although it's a law in New York state, each community, each taxing authority has to opt in to accept it. So I think that the combination of all those things are really an important tool for us to recruit and retain people 'cause retention is also a big issue for any fire department.

SIMON: Oh, because you want their cumulative experience, don't you?

NELSON: Oh, totally. Yeah. There's a lot of training that goes into training people how to be firefighters. And so that institutional knowledge is crucial to the success of any outcome. You know, we age from 16 years old up to 80-plus.

SIMON: Sixteen to 80?

NELSON: Yes.

SIMON: Wow.

NELSON: To be clear, you can't go inside a burning building when you're 16 years old. You have to be, you know, 18 to do that. And then every year, we have to get a fit test and a physical in order to be qualified to be interior. But we do have members that are 80-plus that, you know, do go to incidents, and they do exterior tasks.

SIMON: But, I mean, 18 to 80 is pretty impressive, too.

NELSON: Yeah. It's an interesting culture of people, super dedicated to the town that we live. And it's no small endeavor. And, you know, it can be dangerous. It's almost always challenging, but it can also be tremendously rewarding.

SIMON: Peter Nelson, volunteer fire chief in Accord, N.Y.

Thanks so much for being with us.

NELSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.