Outside of the Atwood Hose Fire Company in Wauregan, the volunteer fire department has a sign celebrating its 125 years of service to the community. On the same sign, just a line below, the department makes a plea to people driving by: "please volunteer today."
"It's a slow creep, but in the last couple of years it has really been noticeable," said Chief Robert Duval, describing the department's difficulty recruiting new members.
Volunteer firefighting has been a part of Duval's life for as long as he can remember. He officially became a member of the Atwood Hose Fire Company four decades ago, following in his father and grandfather's footsteps. When Duval first joined, he said they could depend on a member pool of about 40 volunteers. Today, that member pool is cut in half.
"We are asking a smaller amount of people to do the same amount of work that was done with a larger group a few years ago," said Duval. "You risk burnout."
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In addition to leading the Atwood Hose Fire Company, Duval also leads the CT Fire Chiefs Association. He said volunteer departments across the state are facing the same challenge.
The Pomfret Volunteer Fire Department is doubling down on recruitment efforts. Chief Brett Sheldon said when he joined the department 20 years ago, they had about 67 to 70 volunteer members. Today, they have about 27 members.
"This is not just in Connecticut. This is not just in Pomfret," said Sheldon. "This is happening everywhere."
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, 65% of firefighters are volunteers. The council reports that over the past 30 years, the number of volunteer firefighters across the country has declined, while call volume continues to increase.
The NVFC received a federal grant to help them create a national recruitment and retention campaign. They provide local departments with research-based resources.
As for what's behind the problem, Chief Duval said there are a lot of factors at play, including people having less free time.
"It's societal. Some areas are more hard hit than others," said Duval. "No time for themselves or just no desire to do it. They have other things they want to do and being in the emergency response world is not one of them."
Duval said fire departments all across the country are trying various recruiting techniques, hoping to recruit younger people as well. He said most departments are willing to take any time commitment that a volunteer can provide.
Chiefs Duval and Sheldon hope people take time to learn more about volunteer fire departments.
"Please go out and do what you can for your community. It's just very much worthwhile," said Sheldon.