Volunteer Firefighters Seek To Grow Their Family

Regardless of township, Midland County volunteer firefighters form a unique family. A family that has shrunk in numbers while call volumes and responsibilities have skyrocketed.  Of the total estimated 1,041,200 firefighters across the country, 676,900 are volunteers according to the National Fire Protection Association.The number of volunteer firefighters has decreased nationally from 897,750 in 1984 to 676,900 in 2020. Yet, volunteers comprise 65% of firefighters in the United States.
Firefighter Cody Doland
One reason often cited for this decline is the extensive time requirements demanded from the job. Coleman Community Fire Department Firefighter Cody Doland agrees, “Fire departments are running more calls now than ever before which means it requires more time commitment”. Ron Shaffer, Captain for the Midland Township Fire Department notes “We had 84 calls just last month, that’s a ton, that’s the most we’ve ever had”. Tim Swanson, Fire Chief for Midland Township Fire Department agrees, “I started 27 years ago and I think we were running maybe 150 calls a year, and now we're averaging over 500.”

Many volunteer firefighters believe that time requirements can be attributed to more than just total call volume, but the amount of training now required. “Training requires an immense amount of time not just to gain fire and EMS certification but to retain firefighters with continuing education.” says Doland. “I think the length of training is a challenge, six months, twice a week, and it's a time commitment for volunteers,” says Homer Township Fire Chief John Hanson. And these time challenges affect more than just the volunteers' jobs, but their home life as well.  “(The challenge) is the same for all of us…we are away from our families during monumental events like holidays, birthdays, etc.” says Doland. “We don't get called when it's convenient. We got a call at 3:00 in the morning and then another at 7:00 today, and some of my guys have to go to work at 7am, so they don't get a lot of sleep.” adds Hanson. 

Homer Township Fire Department
Economics and the increased cost of training and equipment has also made the process of volunteering more prohibitive.. “Fire fighting equipment has skyrocketed in price over the past few years…All firefighters want safe, up-to-date equipment. We understand no one wants to pay higher taxes, and we don’t either, but it's a necessity.” says Doland. “It seems like any equipment related to firefighting or emergency services, the prices are just horrendously high. We're in the process of buying a new tanker water hauler and two or three years ago it was $750,000 for the truck. Now it's over $1,000,000.” adds Hanson. 

Also at issue is the ability to attract young volunteers who have a different perspective on staying in their hometown, preferring to relocate after college or high school. “We're looking for young firefighters and there seems to be a struggle with a long term endeavor like firefighting. Now young people are finding work all over the place and they're traveling a lot. We've trained several firefighters and then had them move out to Colorado, one went to Florida.” say Doland, “It's just hard to find homegrown kids anymore.” 

Midland Township firefighters work a grass fire
Recruitment can also be impacted by the availability of qualified candidates. Shaffer ads, “(Midland Township Chief) Tim doesn't just take everybody. He talks, he looks at things, because every department has a lot of issues where you bring somebody in, you send them to the fire academy, and then they decide they don't want to do it. We've just wasted six months and $500 bucks on them for nothing.”

When asked why volunteers serve given these challenges, Shaffer said the answer is simple, family, both his and others. I'm protecting and serving the people that live by me, my own family, you know, So that's kind of a bigger deal to me, these are our people. And for me, my dad was a firefighter. My older brother was a firefighter. I've only done fire and EMS for a career. It’s all I've ever done, it’s all I know. Both my boys are firefighters. I've got other nephews who have done it. It's kind of a family deal.”

Midland Township firefigfhters
Midland County volunteer firefighters are working to address these problems by increasing their public engagement. Community outreach events have played a big role in helping spread the word for local volunteers. “If we didn't have the community's support we couldn't do what we do. I enjoy teaching the community about what we do and why we need their help to keep doing it! Our most powerful community outreach is when we are called for emergencies and get to take care of our citizens.” says Doland. “We have a Facebook page and we do a lot of school visits and we really enjoy the Shop With A Hero event at Christmas time.” says Swanson. However, both Swanson and Shaffer agree that the best promotional tool for any volunteer department is the sense of brotherhood gained when joining the department and creating lifelong relationships that help save peoples lives. 

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Read more articles by Ben Tigner.

Ben Tigner is a native Colemanite that married a native Sanfordite and seeks to spiritually retain dual citizenship in both communities. He is a lifelong Pistons fan and enjoys playing the piano but loathes mind numbing Minecraft banter from his children. He earned his Bachelor's degree at Ferris State and Masters from CMU and has served for over 20 years on school and zoning boards, and city councils.