Here’s a surprising fact: More than half of the firefighters in America are volunteers.
Of the 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, more than 780,000 were volunteers, spread across more than 25,000 individual departments. Roughly a third of the US population is protected by mostly or all-volunteer fire departments.
Also surprising, perhaps? Sometimes they have to pay for their own gear.
I know this because, in addition to writing about cars for WIRED, I volunteer as a firefighter in Durango, Colorado. I responded to more than 50 calls in 2013, everything from wildfires and heart attacks to structure fires and car accidents. In that time, I’ve spent close to $1,000 on optional gear not supplied by my department–things like higher quality flashlights, knives, and better gloves. Things that make my job easier. And I’m lucky. I volunteer for a well-funded department that covers the vast majority of my costs. But I know of departments that must take hand-me-down bunker gear and even used fire trucks and ambulances, because they simply don’t have any money. Some firefighters must even pay for their own training.
Yesterday, a bill (HR 343) was introduced in Congress by Representative David B. McKinley (R-WV) that would give a significant tax deduction to those who volunteer their time as first responders. I hope it passes, not because it will put some money in my pocket (though, hey, that’ll be nice) but because in easing the financial burden on volunteers and acknowledging their time commitment, I believe this bill will encourage more people to help.
And we need that.
If you live in a rural part of the United States, it’s likely that some or all of the firefighters responding to an emergency will be unpaid volunteers. And chances are, in your lifetime, you will need the support of the local fire department. While we’re all worried about identity theft, or credit card fraud or big, epic hacks, we’re much more likely to be the victim of a fire or a heart attack or a car accident. Nearly everyone needs the fire department at some point in their lives.
In rural areas where population density is low and calls for fire and EMS services are relatively scarce, it just doesn’t make financial sense to have career firefighters on staff 24/7. Instead, volunteers are used to fill in the gaps. We are ready to put our regular lives aside at a moment’s notice when that pager goes off to help someone on what is, literally, the worst day of their life. We have likely never met before, and might never again, but none of that matters in a crisis. Without volunteers, the whole system would collapse. This bill would give a modest but meaningful incentive to encourage more people to volunteer for their communities.
Volunteer firefighters save local governments close to $140 billion a year over the cost of having career staff on duty, according to the National Fire Protection Association, a truly astounding number. If the bill passes and all those firefighters took full advantage of the deduction (which is different from a credit, it just reduces total taxable income), it would only amount to between $1 and $2 billion—a far cry from the what volunteers save their communities compared to the cost of full-time firefighters.
But despite that, the number of volunteers has fallen by some 11 percent since the mid ’80s. The New York Times attributes this partially to the rise in two-income households where there may not be a spare parent to watch the kids while the other runs off to an emergency, as well as to more general trends in urbanization and an aging rural population.
More volunteers means faster response times and better service to rural areas, which will result in lives and property saved.
This bill will encourage more people to volunteer, and discourage others from leaving service. Every little bit helps, because fire departments are consistently cash strapped, even with all the cost savings. Fire engines and other modern firefighting equipment like self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) packs are extraordinarily expensive. Departments rely on government grants and fundraising in an attempt to cover basic equipment costs, leaving little money left to compensate volunteers.
At Durango Fire, volunteers who respond to a six calls per quarter receive a $90 fuel stipend, as well as a modest pension after 10 years of service. Some departments, such as the Cascade Township Fire Department in Michigan, have “paid on-call” personnel, rather than volunteers. Their firefighters are paid $11.55 per hour for training, and $14 per hour when on duty. Cedar Springs Fire Department pays its firefighters just $10 per call, regardless of how long they spend on scene.
The Volunteer Emergency Responders Tax Deduction Act would allow volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to treat up to 300 hours of services as charitable donations worth $20 per hour, a total of up to $6,000 in federal deductions per year. For me, that won’t amount to a huge chunk of change, but it would help. And more importantly for me and others, it will help us feel appreciated.
Though we spend money to buy gear and gas and sometimes even pay for our own training, by far the biggest sacrifice we make is time away from our families. And for us, the sheer time commitment of training (totaling dozens and dozens of hours a year, depending on certifications) and responding can be burdensome. In the three years I’ve been a firefighter, I have received training in Hazardous Materials Operations, Firefighter I/II, EMT First Responder, and training in how to fight wildland fires. Luckily for me, my department was able to cover the costs (with help from Federal grants), totaling several thousand dollars. I could easily spend years doing nothing but training, gaining EMT or paramedic certifications, more advanced HazMat, certification as a fire officer, fire investigator, or training on how to operate a fire truck pump panel or even the giant ladder trucks. And that’s in addition to my day job.
Fires are just the beginning. Firefighters must be prepared to deal with hazardous materials spills, electrical issues, car crashes, medical emergencies, injured animals, stranded hikers and much, much more. The Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department was first on scene to the crash of United Flight 93. Forty-seven volunteer firefighters were killed while on duty in 2013, including 9 at the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. As a volunteer firefighter, you just never know what the day has in store, so we train for as many scenarios as possible and are ready to go at any moment.
There’s a T-shirt that’s popular among we volunteers that reads “For Pride, Not Pay.” We volunteer because we know our communities need us. We don’t need a small tax break. Without one, we’ll still put on our gear when the alarm goes off right as we’re sitting down to dinner without any hesitation. But we’d appreciate one, and if it encourages more people to join us, it’s worth it.