It’s a potentially dangerous problem that keeps getting worse in New Jersey.

Heather Schafer, the CEO of the National Volunteer Fire Council, said volunteer fire companies across the Garden State are understaffed because they can’t attract enough volunteers and are becoming increasingly reliant on companies in nearby towns to help out in emergencies.

“Departments have mutual aid agreements between departments so that they’re able to respond together mutually to a call if it’s warranted,” she said. “So it’s critical that departments work very well together, they’re in contact with each other, they understand each other’s roles.”

Schafer says many times when one department is responding outside their jurisdiction, they will call on another department in a nearby town to come in and backfill their station just in case there’s another call.

The manpower shortage can make it harder on the volunteers.

“They’re already busy and then if you lose a couple of volunteers, the ones that are there are taking up the additional slack,” she said.

Mike Gonnelli, an active volunteer firefighter in Secaucus, where he also serves as mayor, said even with backup from other towns, a shortage of available firefighters right away can be a huge problem.

“The first two minutes is the most important part of the fire, it’s the most important time that you have to try to attack the fire,” he said. “That’s the time they have to get a handle on it. After that, you know, all bets are off.”

To try and remedy the situation, Schafer said her organization has launched a national effort to attract volunteer firefighters called Make Me a Firefighter.

“It provides a website where interested citizens can learn about volunteer opportunities in their community. Many people may not even realize their local fire department is volunteer and they’re looking for recruits,” she said.

There are also opportunities for volunteers to serve in a non-operational way.

“Departments need help with recruiting and fundraising. There are many roles and opportunities within fire departments,” she said.

At the same time, many departments have applied for federal funding to help in carrying out recruitment campaigns and starting junior firefighter programs.

“We manage what is called the National Junior Firefighter program because the future of the fire service is our youth. We are interested in getting people who are under the age of 18 interested in the volunteer fire service,” she said.

The majority of the junior firefighters go on to become operational volunteer firefighters once they turn 18.

A growing number of volunteer departments are offering stipends to volunteers, and legislation is in the works for a national tax break for volunteer firefighters. Also, more and more department are recruiting women as well as men.

“Right now nationally, women make up about 4 percent of all volunteer firefighters,” she said.

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