Seniors Lead Central Texas Volunteer Firefighters Amid Shortage

WOODWAY, Texas - Of the 1.2 million firefighters in the country, more than half of them are volunteers. This means roughly a third of the nation's population is protected by mostly, or all, volunteer fire departments.

These numbers stand out even more in Central Texas. Some agencies are creeping toward crisis mode.

A trio of Central Texas senior citizens will likely be the first firefighters on the scene when the sirens blare. Woodway's volunteer firefighters range from age 20 to 60.

Most of the experienced crew comes a bit older, but this is not due to a lack of recruiting.

"A lot of the young people that we do get are in no kind of physical condition to do this kind of work. They don't have the body build, they don't have the tone, they don't have the endurance - and quite frankly, they don't have the desire," says Woodway Volunteer Firefighter Ben Selman.

Ray Dobbs, Bert Hernandez and Selman have battled blazes for a combined 80 years. However, their department's struggles are the same all over.

Staffing at the nation's volunteer fire departments has dropped 15 percent over the last 30 years, according to the Volunteer Fire Service Fact Sheet. This happens while emergency calls have tripled.

This means smaller markets are feeling the heat first.

"They didn't have the tax base to be where they needed to be people-wise, so they relied on the volunteers. Those people are in deep trouble," Hernandez says.

This dramatic decline comes as volunteers say people are more connected with their personal life over with public service. They say the next generation just isn't interested in helping.

"A lot of those skills, as far as public service, are not taught at home like they used to be. People are more 'I' oriented. I hate to say it that way, but that's what it is," Dobbs says.

This is a dangerous job, especially if it is unpaid. More than half the firefighters who died in 2016 were volunteers.

"It could be a massive car wreck. It could be multiple fatalities. It could be a house fire, structure fire, church fire, schools, commercial buildings - all of them are bad," Dobbs says.

"The first thing is somebody's having a horrible day, calm down so I can help them. But even after so many years, that charge when the pager goes off, it does not go away," Hernandez says.

This millennial recruiting rut puts outlying areas and smaller cities at risk.

"In the rural areas where the tax base doesn't support it, what you're going to see is the urban areas trying to cover, and they're not going to get covered," Selman says.

So until backup can withstand the training, these three will keep suiting up and saving lives. However, there is a dangerous deadline looming.

"You have to be competent. You have to maintain training. You have to give up family and home life, and you've got to respond to the pager. And people just don't want to make those kinds of commitments," Hernandez says.

"You're going to see things happening like they're happening in the flooding, in the hurricanes - where citizens untrained are going to step up and they're going to try to help and they're going to get hurt," Selman says.

There is also a push in Congress to address the volunteer shortage. This plan is backed by senators from Montana and Missouri, and calls for someone's student loan debt to be paid off if they serve as a volunteer firefighter for ten years. This bill is still in the early stages.


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