An attractive college scholarship program is part of a statewide effort to bolster the ranks of volunteer emergency responders.
It’s a never ending challenge, said Bill Lundy, secretary-treasurer of the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association.
“There’s a lot of things that are pushing against all groups or volunteer agencies, whether it’s the Jaycess or the Kiwanis or the Sertoma, there’s just a lot of pressure, and being on a volunteer fire department is a big time commitment,” Lundy said.
Maintaining membership is a bigger challenge for some departments than others, Lundy said. While places like the Scribner Volunteer Fire Department have a full roster and waiting list, other departments struggle, he said.
“We’re very, very fortunate,” Scribner Chief Ken Thomas said. “Since I’ve been on the department, almost 33 years, we’ve always had a full roster, it seems like, with one to four people on the waiting list. We’ve had people wait for two years to get on the department.
“It’s very rare,” he said. “I think we understand how lucky we are, so you try to keep the guys interested in the department.”
“We’ve got good numbers but we work at it,” Cedar Bluffs Fire Chief Rob Benke said.
“The big problem with a volunteer department is that people’s jobs change and their lives change,” he said.
North Bend Fire Chief Kevin Dubbs said his department is “about in the middle of the road” with 15 members on a roster that has room for 30. The last time North Bend had a full roster, he said, “was probably in the 1970s.”
His department reduced the minimum age from 21 to 18 at least 15 years ago, which paid some dividends.
“We pick up a few that come right out of high school,” Dubbs said.
North Bend is among a growing number of departments with a cadet program aimed at getting people involved at a younger age in hopes they eventually will become members.
North Bend’s program, open to 14- to 17-year-olds, has had as many as five participants at one time.
“We did have one guy who went through our cadet program and became a member,” Dubbs said. “He put himself through Southeast (Community College), and he’s now a member of the Fremont Fire Department. ... He would be one of our success stories.”
Cedar Bluffs started its cadet program four or five years ago.
“I would suggest it for any department,” Benke said. “Right now we only have about four, but we’ll be starting the program again this summer with some more.”
He estimated 60 to 70 percent eventually become members.
Arlington’s cadet program has been up and running for about 10 months, Secretary Micheal Dwyer said.
“It’s a recruiting tool, pure and simple,” he said. “We wanted to add and encourage young people in the fire service and in EMS and squad-related things.
“I was at a meeting almost two years ago in March with the fire chief from Ralston,” he went on. “He quoted a statistic that was just fascinating to me that if you have a cadet program, if you have young people involved in it, I believe the statistic was 72 percent of those kids will go on to continue in the fire service at some level.
“We have seven cadets now, and they’re all excellent; they’re great kids,” he said.
The Arlington Fire Department has experienced the ups and downs of membership. Currently at 34 members with room for one more -- two applications pending -- Dwyer is “astounded” by those numbers.
“A little over a year ago when we started talking about the cadet program,” he said, “I believe our numbers were at 24.
“I wish I could say it was because of this thing or that thing, but frankly we just had a real influx, not only of just numbers but the quality of people that we have gotten in the last year; it’s just staggering.”
At Scribner, Thomas said, the older veterans take an interest in the younger members.
“It’s up to the older guys to teach and train and mentor the younger guys and gals,” he said.
“Plus the department is pretty active as far as doing different things around the community, and I think that helps keep an interest in the young guys,” he said.
The chiefs said maintaining modern and well-kept equipment helps with membership by projecting professionalism and pride that potential recruits notice.
“Between the great cooperation that we get from the city council and the rural fire board, keeping the department in modern equipment and keeping it in good shape, all of those things are kind of a factor, but I don’t think you can throw a dart at any of them and say that’s the reason we’re successful or lucky enough to have what we have. It’s probably a combination of all of it,” Thomas said.
“We do some things for the members and also for their families throughout the year,” Benke said, “because the families are also giving their time when they volunteer.
“We have swim parties for the kids because the kids are losing their time with mom and dad, and we do remember that and try to make it up to them as much as we can,” he said.
“First and foremost,” Dwyer said, “they have to have in their makeup the willingness and desire to serve. We can offer them some other stuff, but if they’re going to be any good at this, they really have to have a sense of wanting to serve.
“We get to do some incredibly stressful, but also incredibly important things,” he said. “The opportunity to volunteer to do something like that, I think people recognize as pretty cool. The camaraderie that you develop with the people you work with is just unbelievable. It’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction to be working next to people that you trust with your life and with somebody else’s life.”
The newest recruiting tools are getting the attention of younger volunteers.
The NSVFA received a $1.96 million SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant that offers to help pay college tuition for volunteer emergency responders and their immediate family.
“There are two major components to that,” Lundy explained. “One is called STRIVE (Student Tuition Reimbursement as Incentive for Volunteer Emergency Responders). The goal was try to award 75 scholarships per year with a maximum amount of $4,200 per scholarship.”
The money can be used for tuition and books at any Nebraska public or private college or university. In exchange, the member must commit to two years of service at their local department.
The first round, due March 1, drew 71 applications, and a second round is due by Sept. 1.
Benke said several people on his department are interested in the scholarships, including one who sees it as a way to help pay for paramedic class, and another whose daughter is attending the University of Nebraska – Omaha.
The other component of the SAFER grant is recruitment and retention seminars for department members. The first will be offered at State Fire School in Grand Island in May, and another will be offered in the fall. With a cap of 30 students in the first seminar, the class is already full, Lundy said.