Not Just a Rural Issue: Urban Counties Struggle with Fire/EMS Recruitment & Retention

Urban and rural counties across Maryland are reporting difficulties in recruiting and retaining career and volunteer firefighters. 

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Sun reported that the Baltimore City Fire Department was struggling with firefighter and EMS shortages, pushing many in the department into overtime shifts. The article details how city officials are being forced to contend with record vacancy rates and a need to balance coverage in the state’s largest city. Unfortunately, this story is not unique, as nearly all of Maryland’s 24 counties are contending with similar challenges.

Statewide firefighting leaders have been sounding the alarm for several years. Recent developments have prompted actions by several counties. In June 2022, Baltimore County rolled out a new incentive structure for firefighters who stay three additional years past their retirement eligibility. In October 2022, Harford County significantly expanded its volunteer fire and EMS pension benefits to encourage more public involvement.  And in December 2022, Montgomery County created a $2500 property tax credit for firefighters and others. 

Outside of Maryland, other jurisdictions are also struggling. The Washington Post reported in late 2021 that Alexandria, Virginia, a city right across the border, was struggling with keeping emergency departments staffed and that it was impacting response times. Things have become so strained in New York, a state where, “Volunteer fire departments provide coverage to approximately 46% of the population, but 76% have reported a decrease in volunteer service…” that Governor Hochul appropriated $10 million to support firefighter recruitment and retention efforts.

According to Fortune Magazine:

Eric Bernard, board of the National Volunteer Fire Council and a volunteer firefighter in Maryland, said many volunteer fire organizations in big states such as Pennsylvania or New York have seen a steady decline in members since the 1980s. But since the pandemic there has been a “massive” drop in people who want to join both volunteer and career fire departments, he said, and more firefighters are retiring. Bernard attributed that to the stress of going on calls during the pandemic, when firefighters would often be the ones going into the homes of very sick patients and taking them to the hospital.

“That fatigue and that exhaustion physically, mentally, has caused many of the career people to retire, retire early,” Bernard said, adding, “We have health issues, mental health, post-traumatic stress and members that catch COVID.”

Bernard said fire departments also struggle to recruit women and more diverse applicants into their ranks.

MACo’s Firefighter Initiative

In 2022 MACo’s Board voted to adopt Firefighter Recruitment and Retention as one of four major legislative initiatives, meaning this would become a priority for the association and its 24 members. As part of a multiyear strategy, MACo engaged with stakeholders to develop a comprehensive study bill that would bring everyone together to examine the issue and develop recommendations. The formal adoption of SB414 created the Commission to Advance and Strengthen Fire Fighting and Emergency Medical Services Within Maryland and formally set into motion a deliberative examination process which is set to conclude with a report due in December.

Counties understand the gravity of their duty to provide public safety. While firefighter recruitment and retention is a serious concern, Maryland’s counties are leading the charge to find a solution.