Volunteer firefighting drops: A venerable tradition wanes
Web posted at: 7:20 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Gary Tuchman
NEW YORK (CNN) -- For volunteer fire departments across the United States, it's a burning issue, literally and figuratively.
In a nation that has historically relied on unpaid firefighters, the number of volunteers had dwindled to a precarious level.
There are now nearly 100,000 fewer volunteers now than there were in the early 1980s.
Higher costs of living, particularly in communities near New York City, has made the venerable tradition of community service at the fire station difficult to sustain.
Just ask Bill Lanning, who has been a volunteer in the upper middle class town of Ramsey, New Jersey since 1986. Now he's planning to move.
"With my financial situation I can't live in my town that I've been volunteering in for 10 years. I don't really want to move but unfortunately I have to live comfortably and support my family," says Lanning.
Another reason for the volunteer shortage? Time constraints.
"The people that are established in the community who are home owners, if you will, who have families, who have roots, are forced to get part time jobs and because of that do not give the time back to the community through emergency services like they once did," said Edward Cohn of the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety.
There are nearly 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. Of that number, more than 800,000 are volunteers, more than 75 percent of all fire personnel.
Most of the paid firefighters are in America's major cities, where few if any are volunteers. But the fastest population growth isn't happening in the big cities.
The suburbs are where the population has increased most rapidly, and these are the communities that tend to rely on the depleted volunteer fire departments.
It's a big problem, says the nation's top fire official. Carrye Burley Brown, administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration.
She said the government is trying to sustain volunteerism with "training courses." And local fire officials talk about establishing incentives like tax breaks to encourage more unpaid workers.
In the meantime, they will fight fire with whomever they have -- while they volunteer frequent concern about the lack of labor.
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