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Increased ageing trends evident among firefighters says NVFC report

Ageing firefighters directly effect the working fire services in a slow and hampered manner which leads a fall in productivity
The majority of firefighters protecting communities of 2,500 or less were 40 years of age or older

Increased training standards make firefighters more effective at their job and ultimately reduce losses of life and property from fire.

In October, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released the U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2009 report, providing a variety of national statistics about career, combination, and volunteer fire departments. NFPA has been publishing this report for several decades, which makes it possible to identify trends in U.S. fire departments by comparing the data from each annual report.

Last year, the National Volunteer fire Council (NVFC) found that according to the 2008 report, the majority of firefighters protecting communities of 2,500 or less were 40 years of age or older. 

The 2009 report marks the highest level, both in the total number and percentage (27.4), of firefighters over the age of 50 serving in communities of 2,500 or less since NFPA began publishing this data in 1987. While the number of firefighters in our nation's smallest communities under the age of 30 increased by 5,000 between 2008 and 2009, this still represents the third smallest total number of firefighters in this cohort since 1987. Additionally, the number of firefighters between the age of 30 and 39 fell below 100,000 for the first time.

An examination of U.S. Fire Department Profiles going back to 1987 reveals a persistent aging trend among firefighters protecting communities of 2,500 or less. Firefighters protecting communities of this size are overwhelmingly volunteer and comprise approximately one third of the nation's firefighting workforce and slightly less than half of the nation's volunteer firefighters.

In 1987, firefighters over the age of 50 were the smallest number of firefighters by age group in communities of 2,500 or less, followed by firefighters between 40 and 49, then firefighters under the age of 30 and firefighters between 30 and 39. Today, the number of firefighters in the three youngest age groups is roughly equivalent (just under 100,000 for each) while firefighters over the age of 50 have become the largest age group. View graphs of this information HERE.

Ageing firefighters should maintain good fitness and health for better services and performance

Overall, the number of firefighters in communities of 2,500 or less under the age of 40 has declined by approximately 85,000 since 1987. They have been replaced by about 45,000 firefighters over the age of 40, all but 5,000 of which are 50 or older (see graphs HERE).

What does this mean for the volunteer fire service? Let's start with what it doesn't mean. While it is likely (based on the statistics for communities of 2,500 or less) that the average age of volunteer firefighters in general is increasing to some degree, it is impossible to know for certain based on the U.S. Fire Department Profile numbers. This is because NFPA tracks the age of firefighters by community size rather than by personnel type (career, combination, or volunteer).

Out of 408,650 firefighters in communities of 2,500 or less, nearly 400,000 are volunteers, but as communities get larger so does the percentage of career personnel. This makes it difficult to isolate volunteer-specific aging trends in the personnel serving these communities. On top of this, the number of career personnel as a percentage of the total number of firefighters in communities of more than 2,500 has increased since 1987, which means that the makeup of the population being measured has changed.

Another thing that the aging numbers do not indicate is that older personnel represent some sort of risk to public safety. On the contrary, numerous statistical analyses performed by NFPA and the U.S. Fire Administration show that while fire continues to pose a substantial threat to life and property in this country, fire losses have gone down in communities of all sizes. Although per-capita fire risk tends to be higher in smaller communities, this is not a new trend and is almost certainly attributable to persistent gaps in the ability of smaller departments to obtain equipment and training, as well as structural disadvantages like having to travel longer distances to get to an incident and less reliable water sources.

Ageing firefighters must concentrate on their health
Increased training makes firefighters more efficient at adapting to situations and problems

What the aging numbers do suggest is that there are a significant number of volunteer fire departments that are having a difficult time attracting new, younger members. The NVFC is concerned that unless volunteer fire departments do a better job with recruitment and retention, many communities will find it difficult to continue to provide effective emergency response services as their older firefighters retire.

The reasons for the decline in the numbers of younger volunteer firefighters are numerous. Training and certification requirements have increased significantly even as many young people find themselves with less free time to commit to such activities. Americans spend more time commuting to and from work every year, and the number of households in which all adults present work outside the home is up significantly over the past two decades.

"Increased training standards make firefighters more effective at their job and ultimately reduce losses of life and property from fire," said NVFC Health and Safety Committee Chairman Kenn Fontenot. "At the same time, we have to be realistic about how we structure training delivery – how it is funded, where and when it is offered, and attitudes towards training – to ensure that volunteer fire departments aren't forced to choose between adequate staffing levels and adequate training."

The good news is that there are numerous examples across the country of volunteer fire departments that are meeting and overcoming the significant obstacles that they face. These departments generally have effective leadership, cooperate with other local fire departments through mutual aid, work with state and national organizations, and actively seek and receive assistance from government at the local, state, and federal level. There probably isn't a single solution to address the challenges that volunteer fire departments are facing, but there are a lot of resources available and a number of people and organizations developing new strategies and tools.

In recent years, many communities have begun incentive programs to improve recruitment and retention efforts, providing modest benefits to volunteer personnel in the form of stipends, pay-per-call and training, length of service award programs (pension-like programs), and non-monetary benefits ranging from awards banquets to gym memberships. The NVFC supports several federal bills that would make it easier for local communities to provide recruitment and retention benefits, including:

Fire Service volunteers must get increased benefits due to their hard work and the amount of risk involved

The Volunteer Emergency Services Recruitment and Retention Act (H.R. 1792, S. 3319)

This legislation would simplify the requirements for length of service award programs and reduce the administrative burden on both governmental agencies and potential sponsors by using existing statutory and regulatory schemes. Under H.R. 1792, a service award program could be treated as an "eligible deferred compensation plan" if the program sponsor meets certain requirements and elects to do so. The legislation would not create any new service award programs or require changes to existing service award programs, but simply provide increased flexibility for program sponsors.

The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act (H.R. 3666, S. 3136)

The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act (VRIPA) was signed into law on December 20, 2007, amending the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to exclude tax benefits and up to $360 per year in other benefits provided to volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel from employment taxes and wage withholding. VRIPA expires at the end of 2010 and the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act (VRIPRA), which extends the tax exemption through 2013 and expands it to cover up to $600 per year in benefits.

The Fire Grants Reauthorization Act (H.R. 3791, S. 3267)

This legislation reauthorizes the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program. SAFER funds (required by law to be at least 10 percent of the amount appropriated each year) can be used to fund recruitment and retention activities. The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3791 on November 18, 2009.

In addition to working on federal legislation, the NVFC operates several national programs designed to increase the capacity of fire departments. The Fire Corps program assists departments in the recruitment and retention of non-operational volunteers, who perform various fire department tasks and functions, allowing firefighters to focus on emergency response.

Through Fire Corps, the NVFC operates 1-800-FIRE-LINE, a number anyone in the nation can call to learn about fire and emergency service volunteer opportunities in their area. This line netted over 6,000 calls from prospective volunteers in 2009.

The NVFC has also developed a Retention & Recruitment Guide, which addresses the primary challenges departments face regarding retention and recruitment outlines proven solutions to overcome these obstacles.

The NVFC's National Junior Firefighter Program helps volunteer departments engage young people who can potentially become active firefighters when they reach the required age. 

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