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Volunteer firefighters have been on the decline for decades. Wisconsin has a solution

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The country's national fire department registry shows that more than 80% of fire departments are staffed mostly or entirely by volunteers. But for the last three decades, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined. It hit a record low in 2020. In Wisconsin, officials are now helping high school students complete basic fire training, hoping that it will get them interested. Wisconsin Public Radio's Hope Kirwan talked with one of the teens.

HOPE KIRWAN, BYLINE: It's not unusual for teens to watch videos on social media. For high school senior Jadyn Mathison in southwestern Wisconsin, those videos are all about one passion.

JADYN MATHISON: I sit on TikTok and I watch all the firefighting videos. And I'm like, ooh, that looks really fun. Like the adrenaline rush. I really want to go into that.

KIRWAN: Mathison's dad and uncle are full-time firefighters. And she's eager to join the field, too, after she graduates this spring. She's already getting started thanks to a new youth training program created by a local technical college and city fire department. High school seniors sit through lectures and practice skills, and by the end of the year, they'll be certified firefighters and emergency medical responders.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #1: Bring it on in. I want to see.

KIRWAN: On a cold fall morning, an instructor checks the gear on Mathison and her classmates as they get ready to face a real fire for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS BANGING)

KIRWAN: Instructors walk the class through a multi-story training course made of steel shipping containers. Then the students crowd into a room and turn on their air tanks as a practice fire is lit.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #2: How's everybody doing?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Good.

KIRWAN: The students take off a glove for a moment to feel the heat from the blaze. As smoke fills the room, the instructor talks them through the different stages of a fire.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #2: You see what I'm saying about the fog in the headlights? I can't see nothing. I can't see you guys. What stage are we at?

KIRWAN: New state grants have helped these youth programs get started around Wisconsin. The hope is that they'll bring in a new generation of firefighters at a time when departments across the country are struggling with recruitment. Sarah Lee is CEO of the National Volunteer Fire Council. She says one of the challenges for bringing in new members is the increase in required training, especially for departments that serve as their community's emergency medical responders.

SARAH LEE: Back in the day, you could join your volunteer fire department and you might be running a call that night or the next day. Today we have a lot of training requirements. There is a lot of hazards and various things that they're responding to. In fact, very few of the calls are fires.

KIRWAN: Lee says starting that training in high school lowers the stakes for young people who are curious, allowing them to try out firefighting before they're faced with bigger career decisions. Nate Melby from the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association says departments also need to update the way they operate. That includes adjusting their expectation for how much time volunteers can commit. Melby himself was recruited as a volunteer firefighter at the age of 18 and has served in the same department for over 20 years. But he says there's more turnover today as young people move away or decide to step back after serving just a few years.

NATE MELBY: Our volunteer fire service will continue to rise to the occasion. But I do think we have to do it differently, and I think we have to be willing to change. And that's not always easy for firefighters.

KIRWAN: For 17-year-old Mathison, facing a real fire with her classmates was intimidating as much as it was exhilarating. She knows that this is a tough field in many ways after going through the youth program.

MATHISON: You're going to see all the traumatic situations and, like, car accidents, babies and animals and just, like, older people. And I feel like that's going to be the most difficult situation.

KIRWAN: But Mathison says she's motivated to keep going. She's already looking at fire departments in northern Wisconsin that she can join after finishing her training at a local technical college next year.

For NPR News, I'm Hope Kirwan in La Crosse, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILKDRIVE'S "ORION'S WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hope Kirwan