If you dial 911, it is more than likely a volunteer firefighter will respond to your emergency, but in the Granite State, there are not enough volunteers.
Of the more than 200 New Hampshire fire departments, almost 86% are volunteer-run, and rarely do they fight actual fires. Most calls are for medical emergencies, and they also respond to floods, car accidents and even hazardous waste spills.
As climate change brings more extreme weather events, firefighters can often work for days, not just hours.
Larry Best, fire chief in Salem and vice president of the New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs, said it creates an even greater need for volunteers.
“Whether it’s snowstorms, ice storms, droughts, heavy rainstorms that cause flash flooding and stuff, it’s all stuff that we need to plan for and think about,” Best outlined. “And try and have the resources available to respond to them when those occur.”
The amount of training required for the job and maintaining the necessary certifications prohibits many working adults from signing up. But Best pointed out firefighting is a great occupation more young people should consider. He added they are working with the Boys Scouts to grow interest in the fields of firefighting and paramedics.
For now, the need for trained volunteers is forcing many fire departments to pool their resources and cover larger geographic areas.
Sarah Lee, CEO of the National Volunteer Fire Council, said it can be surprising to people who expect help when they call 911.
“These small, rural communities are relying on volunteers to respond, and if they don’t have enough people, then the response time is going to be even longer,” Lee stressed. “It’s really important that they get people that want to step up and give back to their community.”
While many departments still rely on word-of-mouth, open-house events and old-fashioned door knocking to recruit volunteers, they are also increasing their social media presence and working to recruit high school students, who may consider a two-year certification program rather than leaving town to get a four-year college degree.
This story was written by Kathryn Carley, a contributor to Public News Service, where this story first appeared.