South Jersey Fire Companies Struggling for Volunteers
One wouldn't associate a stipend or pension program with a volunteer fire company, but a number of departments across New Jersey have had to resort to these measures in order to beef up their ranks of volunteers.
Training has become more extensive and time-consuming, the family dynamic has changed and the economy still hasn't rebounded. With all of these factors at play, New Jersey fire companies have been struggling to attract volunteer members.
In North Wildwood, fire chief Jeffrey Cole said he remembers the days of a three-year waiting list in order to join. Today, Cole said, the department will take on members "right away, immediately."
Cole said declining membership has been a product of several reasons.
"For one, the training requirements have increased dramatically over the years," he said. "You cannot be proficient just by taking the basic mandatory class. It just takes constant, constant training."
Certification requires 180 hours of instruction, but specialized classes, such as ones that involve water and vehicle rescue, could also be required in certain areas.
North Wildwood is among the departments in New Jersey that utilize a pension program known as Length of Service Awards Program (LOSAP), which gives volunteers an annual payment based on the percentage of calls they answer. However, Cole said the program hasn't done much to attract new members.
The municipality has also depended on assistance from neighboring departments and extended its reach to accept members who are not year-round residents of North Wildwood.
George Saigh of the New Jersey & New York Volunteer Firemen's Association said monthly stipends are the incentive of choice for departments. A stipend serves as extra money in a volunteer's pocket -- money that could take the place of a part-time job.
"The economy isn't what it used to be," Saigh said. "Guys have to work longer hours, extra jobs, just to make the money they need to support their families."
Saigh said another reason for the statewide volunteer shortage is the fact that more families these days include a wife and husband that each have full-time careers.
To fill the gap, some departments in the state have resorted to paid help.
According to Saigh, the Cresskill Fire Department brought on a paid fire chief and three career firefighters for the day shift because that's when the group was considered most "vulnerable" and couldn't get enough volunteers on the scene of an emergency.