To the Rescue: Saving Volunteer Departments: A Sustainable Solution


Please forgive this diversion. I know and respect that this magazine is known for being about apparatus and equipment. That said, without trained and qualified firefighters to staff said apparatus and equipment, our world ceases to exist.
Carl j. Haddon

I have been both a career and a volunteer firefighter. For better or worse, the fire service has changed in many ways. It’s no secret that the volunteer and combination fire service struggles mightily with volunteer recruitment and retention. The average age of the volunteer firefighter continues to rise, and fewer young people are signing up to join the ranks. The truth is, who can blame them? Very few people, especially younger working people, have the “disposable” time required to commit to the training that being a proficient and qualified firefighter requires. I can’t imagine not being a firefighter, and yet when I look at how busy my adult children’s lives are today, I can see how this dilemma exists.

Last year while teaching in southern Louisiana, I learned of an innovative way that one volunteer fire department has turned the tide on volunteer recruitment and retention.

The Thibodaux (LA) Volunteer Fire Department (TVFD) was established in 1843. It now comprises eight fire companies (stations). Each of these fire companies was started by area families in the early to mid-1800s and has proud generational ties and legacies that still exist today. For those of us who are students of our craft, the names of the eight fire companies tell stories that are well worth exploring the history and tradition of: Thibodaux Fire Company No.1, est. 1843; Protector Fire Company No. 2, est. 1867; Home, Hook, and Ladder Fire Company No.1, est. 1874; Vigilant, Chemical, and Hose Fire Company, est. 1920; North Thibodaux Fire Company No.1, est. 1949; South Thibodaux Fire Company, est. 1958; West Thibodaux Fire Company, est. 1966; and Bowie Fire Company No. 1, est. 1989. Each of these fire companies has a motto that exemplifies its selfless pride, tradition, and volunteerism.

Rosenbauer engine refitted with Nicholls State Colonels and the SFA graphics
Rosenbauer engine refitted with Nicholls State Colonels and the SFA graphics

The TVFD is a seemingly well-funded organization; however, it is not exactly funded entirely by way of conventional means. In addition to its innovative recruitment and retention idea, it also produces a “Firemen’s Fair” each year (for the past 135 years!). This fair rivals many big county fairs around the country and boasts headliners (for the 2019 fair) such as Jo Dee Messina in concert. This Firemen’s Fair is not your average volunteer fire department pancake feed or spaghetti dinner fundraiser. The fair is organized and produced by members of the fire department and draws tens of thousands of people from all over the region.

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Even with all of its fantastic history and tradition, the TVFD fell victim to the challenge of maintaining and adding to the volunteer firefighter numbers. The number of members was dwindling, the cadre of volunteers was getting older … sound familiar?

Located in the heart of Thibodaux is Nicholls State University. Nicholls State is a 287-acre campus with an enrollment of roughly 6,500 students and boasts 107 programs of study. It is ranked as one of the top 50 universities in the country for education majors.

In mid-2017, members of the TVFD realized that Nicholls State might be the perfect place to look for new young fire department volunteers. After much hard work, in the fall semester of 2018, the Nicholls State University/TVFD Student Firefighter Association (SFA) was launched. The first semester saw 10 to 15 new members, and a year later it has grown to more than 35 new members. This innovative program has proven to be wildly popular and has turned into a multifaceted endeavor with benefits that reach far beyond just boosting the TVFD’s numbers. Imagine being able to add 35 additional firefighters to your volunteer ranks in one year!

Under the direction of Association President Jay Danos and Fire Chief Chad Mire and his officers and Fire Board members, these student firefighters are brought aboard like any other prospective firefighter. The TVFD offers a very comprehensive and forward-thinking training program for its members. One of the training challenges the department faced was how to get the new recruits up to speed while keeping the established members interested. The chiefs realized that they needed to implement a “tiered” training system that allowed all members training at the commensurate level of their experience. This also gave the newer members the desire to advance into the next higher tier of training and keeps morale very high. Giving established members an opportunity to mentor younger/newer members brought out leadership qualities that may not have been seen prior. This also showed the bosses who was really “into the job” as opposed to who was simply “on the job.”

Now you may be asking, as great as this program sounds, don’t you only have these student firefighters until they graduate? The answer is yes and no. The yes part is obvious; however, the university gets new students each year, which creates the potential to make this program perpetual.

Once trained and outfitted with gear, these students are available (with fire department pagers) for emergency calls on campus and in the surrounding area. They work in harmony with the University and the Campus Safety Department. The TVFD also had the Rosenbauer engine refitted with Nicholls State Colonels and the SFA graphics (photos 1-2).

As you might imagine, university students come from all over the country to attend their chosen course of study. The Nicholls State students in the SFA are no different—with perhaps a very important exception. When these students finish at the university and return home (or wherever they may go), they arrive as trained volunteer firefighters. The unintended consequence of all of this is that not only did the TVFD come up with a way to increase its volunteer firefighter numbers, but it also puts more firefighters into the communities that these students return to after graduation.

The community surrounding the TVFD and the SFA has been supportive in ways that I still can’t really fathom. I have taught fire programs for the TVFD for a number of years. A few weeks ago, a group of us conducted the annual “Thibodaux Fire School” and a live fire training called “Burnin in da Bayou.” Both of these training events would not have been possible without community support. Rouses Markets donated an acquired structure for the live fire. The building was a former hospital complex that we were given free use of for our National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Life Fire Training Evolutions, compliant course. During the training, the estate of a local family donated $170,000 to Nicholls State specifically earmarked for the TVFD Scholarship Fund. To date, this scholarship fund now totals almost $750,000.

I was more than encouraged as I watched these university student firefighters in action during our live fire training evolutions. There were pride and ownership in their eyes and in their step that I don’t get to see as often as I once did in young volunteer firefighters. Not all departments have supportive colleges or universities in their response areas for similar types of programs. What they do all have is the opportunity to think outside of the box, to be able to come up with sustainable new and innovative ways (like the TVFD and Nicholls State did) to revive interest in the profession of firefighting that many of us hold so dear.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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