TRAFALGAR, Ind. — Across Indiana and the country, volunteer fire departments are struggling with their most important resource – volunteers.
This is leading different departments down different paths. In 2023, the Trafalgar Fire Department made a big transition to being part time and paid. For 70 years, the department had been volunteer based. Now, those volunteers will be able to get paid, and the station will be staffed by two firefighter/EMTs 24/7.
Trafalgar Fire Chief Mark Dunn said they’ll now be able to respond much faster to run times.
”It’s going to impact our time from the call to being on scene by anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes,” Dunn said.
Dunn said two firefighters will always be 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.
Shifts run for 12-hour periods, going from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and then 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Firefighter EMTs are paid $15 an hour, and firefighters make $12 an hour.
For bigger emergencies, volunteers will still be called in from across the area. Dunn said the department is now up to a 33-man team. It recently added eight new members, but recruiting volunteers had been difficult.
”We don’t have people knocking down the door to come in,” Dunn said. “Like I said, we’re not losing the volunteers, but we’re not having them come in.”
The hope is this change will also help with recruitment.
”It’s only 10 days into the year, but having people on station 24/7 has made a lot of volunteers come around more,” Dunn said.
The Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association sees recruitment problems across the state.
”It is terribly difficult to recruit volunteers,” said Larry Curl, the lobbyist for the IVFA.
Curl said this has been a problem for volunteer fire departments all over the county for years. People just aren’t volunteering for this work as much as they used to.
”Part of it is they just don’t have the time, part of it is they just don’t see a value in being in a volunteer system,” Curl said. “They get nothing at all out of it.”
The Mexico Volunteer Fire Department in Miami County is seeing those issues. The department put out a notice on Facebook on Jan. 3 that it is pausing service because it’s fire contract was not signed by Town Trustee Reginald Wolfe.
The post said, “As of January 1st, 2023 the Mexico Fire Department is unable to legally respond to any type of calls at this time due to the township trustee not signing a 2023 fire contract with the fire department to provide fire coverage to the town of Mexico or the residents of Jefferson Township.”
Wolfe explained to FOX59 over the phone that the main reason the contract has not been signed is the department could not “guarantee adequate manpower.”
Wolfe said the volunteer fire department could not make daytime calls, and most of the firefighters were located miles away in Peru, so response times were questionable.
Wolfe said it was the Mexico Fire Department’s decision to stop making runs. He said the department could have continued to respond while negotiating the contract.
Mexico Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tony Reich has not returned calls from FOX59.
Curl said a lack of volunteers can lead to fire departments closing.
”If a small department can no longer provide, then somebody else has to pick up that service,” Curl said.
Wolfe said while Mexico VFD is not responding, the town and township will be covered by fire departments in Peru, Denver and New Waverly.
Curl said they’re talking with the Indiana General Assembly about legislation that would incentivize people to become volunteer fire fighters. Curl said one idea is to give income tax abatements to volunteers. He is also proposing a pension fund for volunteer firefighters to keep them around.
He hopes people understand just 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 near you, Dunn said the first step is to reach out to that department. At Trafalgar FD, they will help walk interested people through the training.