According to the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP), 65 percent of the Commonwealth’s force of firefighters is made up of volunteers. However, “retention and recruitment of new members has never been more challenging.”
This comes at a time when service calls for firefighters are increasing, but fire department participants have been waning. Though, a bill moving through the General Assembly may make it easier to increase recruitment firefighters and rescue squad members and bolster the quality of emergency service calls in Virginia.
Senate Bill 887, introduced by Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) will allow 16 and 17-year-old Virginians to join a volunteer fire department. But they will only be permitted with the consent of a parent or guardian, along with proper state-mandated certifications.
If signed by Governor Ralph Northam, teenagers will be permitted to join in on non-hazardous training exercises without the aforementioned consent or certification, but will be needed if they participate in potentially hazardous activities with the fire department or rescue squad.
In a report from WTVR, Mohamed Abbamin, a policy manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP), explained, “The commonwealth recognizes the need to reach out to Virginia’s youth and engage them in non-operational roles within emergency departments.”
Currently, Virginia has approximately 13,000 firefighters and rescue squad members, according the the Virginia State Fighters Association (VSFA). There has been interest in certain regions of the state to include teenagers in the full process of becoming volunteer firefighters, as well as rescue squad members.
Abbamin added that, “Reaching out to people when they are young has long-range effects, and encouraging youth to take part in the emergency services is extremely beneficial to local communities and departments.”
Deeds forwarded the bill after meeting with VDFP officials last fall when they requested that more be done to bolster volunteer numbers for fire department personnel and for the rescue squad. To improve the emergency call standard around Virginia, both the House and Senate unanimously approved the measure.
“It’s just like anything else: If you can get young people involved, there’s a better chance they’re going to stick with it,” Deeds said. “This bill is just about encouraging and making sure that young people can be as involved as possible.”
Deeds’ legislative measure will direct the Virginia Fire Services Board, which oversees the administration of the VDFP, to adopt a policy of junior membership to provide professional guidance to fire and rescue squad departments in developing and administering non-hazardous training courses and programs.
“If we can get young people that are high school age involved at least on an auxiliary basis helping out, they might be interested in eventually becoming a fireman. So that’s the idea behind the legislation,” Deeds said in the report.