A new statistical analysis of county data, done in conjunction with the county audit, shows the continuation of a negative trend that’s been occurring for years: The number of volunteer firefighters serving in Guilford County is dwindling.
The trend is alarming to county fire officials since a lack of volunteer firefighters means a need to increase the number of paid firefighters, and many stations across the county are already financially strapped. That’s evidenced by the fact that they’re using older trucks and equipment that they say badly needs to be updated.
According to the report which studied the available assets of Guilford County government based on function, in 2012, Guilford County had 682 volunteer firefighters and that number dropped to 620 the following year. Through 2013, 2014 and 2015, the number of volunteers stayed almost dead even, with the count at 621 by 2015. In 2016, the downward trend continued when the number of volunteer firefighters dropped to 603. Then, in 2017, it fell to 571 and, at latest count, in 2018, that number was 542.
So, over the last six years, the county has lost 25 percent of its volunteer firefighting force.
One factor seems to be an improving economy in which people are working more and sometimes taking two jobs. They therefore have less time to volunteer.
The report shows that, though the decline has been prevalent for years, Guilford County’s volunteer firefighting force did get a bump during the economic recession following the 2008 economic collapse. In 2009, there were 629 volunteer firefighters and that number popped up to 682 in both 2011 and 2012 before beginning its steady decline.
A more positive stat reveals that the number of volunteer fire stations that serve Guilford County – regardless of the county where they are located – went from 36 in 2012 to 40 in 2018.
Guilford County is not alone in this but the problem does seem to be hitting Guilford County harder than most places. According to a 2017 report by the National Volunteer Fire Council, the number of volunteer firefighters across the country has dropped about 12 percent since 1984.
That report cited a number of reasons including more rigorous training requirements and less available time for people to engage in volunteer firefighting.
The trend is noticeable across North Carolina. In 2017, the Watauga Democrat, a newspaper that serves the Boone and Blowing Rock area, did a two-part series on fire stations and their inability to respond to calls due to the lack of volunteer firefighters. In those cases, the call is answered by the next closest station.
Guilford County officials were already concerned about the decline in the volunteer force several years ago. In 2014, Guilford County Emergency Services Director Jim Albright said fire stations across Guilford County were facing a shortage of volunteers.
“We have declining volunteerism in our county fire system at a fairly alarming rate,” Albright said then.
County, state and national fire officials have cited more stringent entry-level requirements as one of the big reasons for the decline. It used to be that someone could walk up to a fire station, talk to the chief, ride along on some calls and then, after a relatively few hours of training, be fighting fires as a volunteer. In 2018, rules and regulations make volunteering as a firefighter much more difficult.