Ignoring Your Volunteer Firefighter Shortage Doesn’t Make It Go Away

Across the country, volunteer fire companies are experiencing a critical lack of volunteers to staff calls for service and Maryland is no different. Confronting the crisis requires learning new recruitment and retention practices, and making long-term plans that ensure resiliency.

Data showing the recent decline of volunteer firefighters nationally from the National Fire Protection Association.

The number of volunteer firefighters has been declining in recent years. According to a 2017 report of the National Fire Protection Association,

This past year the number of volunteer firefighters decreased to the lowest estimate since NFPA began reporting this statistic in 1986 – 682,600 volunteer firefighters. When the rates of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people protected for mostly or all volunteer departments are examined, the rates show a downward trend and range from a high of 8.05 in 1987 to a low of 5.8 in 2017 per 1,000 population protected.

In Shortage of Volunteer Firefighters Threatens Fire Departments’ Existence, Governing magazine explores the decline of volunteers in fire companies across the country,

Without enough volunteers to respond to emergencies, some fire departments are cutting services or even shutting down. Most are changing the way they recruit. — Governing Magazine

The US Fire Administration published an infogram, Volunteer fire departments in recruitment crisis

Volunteer departments across the country are in a crisis. We have an aging volunteer workforce, higher costs to communities as they hire full- and part-time staff, longer response times and more mutual aid calls, and an ongoing struggle to find funding for equipment that keeps increasing in price. — US Fire Administration

Firearriving.com published 10 Tips to Drive Volunteer Firefighter & EMS Recruitment in 2019 including:

  • Find Your Recruitment Prospects on Facebook & Instagram
  • Apply for a SAFER Grant
  • Leverage Google for Non-Profit Programs, and
  • Videos Beyond Just Lights and Sirens

Ignoring a problem like this does not make it go away. In fact, the experience in several states and in Maryland shows that new volunteer fire recruitment and retention tactics can make a significant difference.

That is one reason why MACo’s 2019 Summer Conference offers a chance for local elected officials and their senior staff to learn more about volunteer fire shortages in Maryland and best practices in recruitment and retention. Two back-to-back sessions on the topic leading up to the Governor’s address on Saturday, August 17 will provide examples of recruitment an retention practices that are working for Maryland volunteer fire companies and explore long-term strategies for maintaining and supporting the volunteer fire system in Maryland.

The leadership of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, representatives of fire companies throughout the state will lead the panels, with state and county elected officials with backgrounds in fire service joining in the conversation with additional perspective.

SESSION ONE: Stoke the Fire: Volunteer Recruitment and Resources

Date/Time: Saturday, August 17, 2019; 9:00 am – 10:00 am

Description: According to the National Fire Department Registry from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 60% of Maryland’s firefighters are volunteers. Persistent and worsening staffing shortages threaten these critical partners in fire response statewide. This session will examine staffing levels of volunteer fire companies and rescue squads in the state, and explore best practices for recruitment and retention of volunteers, including the efforts of other states to address and combat volunteer fire company and rescue squad staffing shortages.


  • Kate Tomanelli, Executive Director, Maryland State Firefighters Association
  • Ron Sollod, Volunteer Retention Chair, Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association (inv)
  • Tracey Johnston, Fire & EMS Commission, Queen Anne’s County

Moderator: The Honorable Michael McKay, Maryland House of Delegates

SESSION TWO: Sound the Siren: Maryland’s Fire Service Needs Help

Saturday, August 17, 2019; 10:15 am – 11:15 am

Description: The Maryland State Firefighters Association advises that there are 362 volunteer fire companies and approximately 28,000 volunteer firefighters in the state. Staffing and funding shortages among volunteer companies are not limited to one or two jurisdictions – they are statewide and worsening. This session will explain the landscape of volunteer and career fire service in Maryland. And, even as the idea of a full-fledged transition from volunteer to paid service may raise alarm, panelists will examine the contours of challenges faced in rural, suburban, and metropolitan volunteer fire companies and rescue squads and posit the best path toward resiliency for each.


  • Johnie Roth, Legislative Director, Maryland State Firemen’s Association
  • Sam Goldwater, Vice President, KFT Fire Trainers, Strategic Planner, Singerly Fire Company, Cecil County
  • Pete Mellitts, Prince George’s County Fire Commissioner, 5th District, Morningside Volunteer Fire Department, Past President, Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association
  • The Honorable Steve Wantz, Commissioner President, Carroll County

Moderator: The Honorable Andrew Serafini, Maryland State Senate

Learn more about MACo’s Summer Conference: