Become a volunteer... and get paid.

It seems to defeat the purpose of a volunteer fire department, but stipends are being used by a growing number of fire companies faced with an insufficient amount of help with handling emergency calls.

Firefighter at work
Jasmina81, ThinkStock

With a vote Wednesday night, Avalon became the latest Garden State municipality to introduce a stipend program for their volunteer firefighters.

"Due in very large part to the economics of Avalon, and the demographic from which most volunteers are drawn, most of our volunteers have moved to the mainland, while continuing their established businesses and employment in Avalon," said Ed Dean, chief of the Avalon Volunteer Fire Department.

So the borough's volunteer base is solid during the day, but struggling at night when the majority of volunteers are home with their families, sometimes more than 20 minutes away from the fire.

With the new program, volunteers receive $400 per month if they spend four nights per month at the firehouse.

"The goal is to have a crew in the house each night to minimally crew the initial engine company," Dean said.

Similar programs exist in nearby Stone Harbor and Sea Isle City.

According to Frank Gunson, president of the New Jersey State Firemen's Association, this type of system is becoming more prevalent throughout the state.

"Unfortunately, due to the training requirements and the economy, the younger guys coming in either are working two jobs, or are spouses trying to raise children at the same time," he said.

Secaucus has offered a stipend to its volunteer firefighters for years. The stipend amount has gradually increased to its current amount of $500.

"If a firefighter makes 35 percent of his calls, he’s entitled to the stipend. If you work for the town and you make 40 percent of your calls, you’re entitled to the stipend," Mayor Michael Gonnelli said.

Gonnelli said the all-volunteer department responds to "a tremendous amount of calls" per year, and stipends are easier to handle than a fully-paid department.

"You don't want to roll a firetruck with one or two guys," Gonnelli said. "You want to have a full crew, and these incentives really seem to work."

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