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Rural firefighters worry next generation won't answer the alarm

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Cutting burned pine
A firefighter cuts away a burned and blackened red pine that had partially fallen and hung up against other trees near Ely, Minn.
Steve Foss | For MPR News 2012

Before days of soaking rain put an end to this year's wildfire season, the Lake George Volunteer Fire Department in Hubbard County fought two years' worth of grass fires in one week.  

They lugged all their gear into a half dozen back-to-back blazes, which Lake George Fire Chief Miff Soderberg said is getting harder to do. The rural northern Minnesota department has just 10 volunteers with an average age of 50. Only two are younger than 40.

  "There's only so much gas in the tank," Soderberg said. "At a certain age your body tells you, maybe don't do that anymore."  

  The problem is young people aren't signing up to fight fires in Lake George. Small town departments across the country are reporting the same: Volunteer firefighters are an aging breed, and the next generation doesn't appear eager to answer the alarm.

  Nearly a third of small-town firefighters are 50 or older, according to data from the National Volunteer Fire Council. That's double the number of older firefighters volunteering in 1987. Over the same 28-year period, volunteer numbers overall decreased by about 12 percent, said Kimberly Quiros, the group's communications manager.

  It's becoming enough of a problem that the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently gave $2.39 million to the volunteer fire council for a marketing effort targeting millennial recruits. That effort will involve social media outreach, websites and recruitment training for small town departments. Quiros said it will roll out some time this summer.  

For small fire departments in northern Minnesota, the help can't come fast enough.

  Bruce Roed runs a fire department to the west of Lake George in the agricultural town of Mentor, Minn. He also works with aging departments across the state as a fire service specialist with the Minnesota Fire Marshal.

  Metro departments like Brooklyn Park, he said, are hiring paid firefighters, because they can't get enough volunteers. Rural departments don't have the money to hire people, but the need is just as great.

  Roed said the Lake George department is a prime example of issues facing many rural departments. Soderberg's department already buys used fire equipment and hosts pancake breakfasts to supplement the annual $30,000 levied from local property taxes.

  Hiring firefighters isn't an option and without any new volunteers the department may eventually shut down.

  In that case, the closest fire crew would be in Laporte, Minn., a 20-minute drive from Lake George. Soderberg said that's the difference between saving a home, and just watching it burn.

  It's something of a mystery why young people aren't donning the fire gear, but Roed has a theory.

  "They're not all in," he said.

  Decades ago, when he joined the department, people lived, worked and hung out in Mentor. Now they might live there, but they work somewhere else, and leave whenever they get a few days off.

  Soderberg figures it has to do with freedom.

  "We all wear beepers," he said. "If you're sitting down to the best meal you can imagine, and that beeper goes off. You're not eating. If you don't put the fork down and run, you're of no use to me."

  It's that level of unconditional commitment he said that turns young people off the fire department.

  But there are some exceptions to the trend.

  Jeremy Newland is 25 years old and wears a fire department pager wherever he goes. He doesn't mind at all.

  "It's exciting," he said, "I could be working and if that goes off I drop everything. It's an adrenalin rush."

  He joined the Alvarado Volunteer Fire Department in northwestern Minnesota when he was just 21. He lives in town, works at the local grain elevator, and hunts nearby in his free time.

  Joining the department, he said, was a way to help the community while adding a little excitement to his own life.

  Quiros said there are more people like Newland than a small town fire chief might think. While developing their millennial outreach program, her group conducted a national survey of 18 to 34-year-olds that found almost one-third of young people were at least slightly interested in volunteer firefighting.

  That adds up to a pool of 34 million potential young volunteer firefighters nationwide.

  The problem is one of communication, she said. The vast majority of the young people who were polled had no idea if their local fire department was looking for help. The outreach program this summer may prove young people will volunteer if they're simply asked.

  "Millennials do want to help their communities," Quiros said. "We're not looking at a generation of me."