🚨 With fewer volunteers, towns may have to regionalize or pay their crews

🚨 The training schedule should be adjusted, a new report says

🚨 More is expected of volunteers today, compared to decades ago

Increased calls for help, a grueling schedule of training, and shifting family dynamics are contributing to a continuing drop in the number of volunteer first responders in the Garden State, and some easy moves can be made to get more folks in the pipeline, according to a group charged with coming up with solutions.

Not all municipalities have the demographics to attract a strong volunteer base, and in some cases, volunteer departments simply don't have the manpower to respond to people in need, said Joseph Hankins, chair of the Special Task Force on Volunteer Retention and Recruitment.

"Something has to be done to try and entice more volunteers to come into the service, and if you can't do that, your municipality is going to have to go paid," Hankins told New Jersey 101.5.

Or, Hankins said, municipalities may be pushed to join forces with a neighboring town or towns.

Hankins is vice president of the New Jersey State Firemen's Association. He served as a volunteer firefighter for more than 40 years in Manchester, which was forced to bring on a paid crew during daytime hours in order to make up for a lack of volunteer help around the clock.

The task force's new report — both the creation of the group and the issuance of a report were mandated with a state law signed in 2018 — cites a growing concern across New Jersey that volunteer organizations are unable to attract and keep members.

Seventy percent of all firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers, according to the United States Fire Administration. But the number of volunteer firefighters has fallen from close to 900,000 in 1984 to less than 680,000.

Ways to attract volunteers

"Volunteer first responders are crucial for maintaining the safety and well-being of our communities," the report says. "Therefore, it is imperative to find solutions for recruiting and retaining volunteers while also maintaining the current standards for training and qualifications of volunteers."

But training requirements can still be tweaked, according to the task force's list of recommendations for state officials. The most basic training for firefighters requires 280 hours of one's time, Hankins said.

Training should be provided in a condensed version in order for it to be completed in fewer hours, the report says. And a virtual option should be offered for certain courses.

And there should be more opportunities for younger individuals — in their teens — to receive phased-in training that can become more advanced once they turn 18, the report says.

Volunteers are more in demand today than in years past, Hankins said — and that may be keeping some people from joining in the first place. A company that may have responded to hundreds of calls per year decades ago are now being called on up to 1,000 annually.

"It's just overwhelming for somebody that's trying to volunteer their time, manage a family, and work," Hankins said.

As part of its recommendations, the task force says the state should allocate funds to establish a permanent public awareness campaign about the need for volunteers, and schools in the state should be required to implement a program to promote firefighters and emergency medical services.

The report also calls for certain incentives for volunteers, such as tuition assistance, student loan forgiveness, health care coverage, and retirement benefits.

A bill reintroduced for the new legislative session would allow certain volunteer firefighters and first aid squad members to claim a $2,000 gross income tax redemption.

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