COURT HOUSE – “Fewer Americans are engaged in the community by volunteering and giving than at any other time in the last two decades,” according to a University of Maryland School of Public Policy 2018 report.
The trend away from volunteer service has been building for some time, encouraged by economic factors and multiple obligations competing for a volunteer’s time.
The impact of this trend is felt in Cape May County, especially in areas of public safety where difficulties in staffing volunteer fire departments and emergency medical services (EMS) have defied several attempts at making such service more attractive.
A 2011 U.S. Department of Transportation study showed that one-third of the nation relies on volunteer departments for the majority of 911 calls. Since then, call volumes have continued to rise, and response times have suffered as fewer volunteers are available.
A complicating factor is that available volunteers often live further away from their primary service location. Adding to the problem of recruiting new members is the aging of existing volunteers.
The problem was evidenced this year, as the Stone Harbor Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 added paid career firefighters for the first time since 1912.
As many of the island communities see large shares of their housing stock going to second home and vacation home use, land values have soared, and the median age of residents has increased significantly.
Cape May County now has the highest median age of any county in the state, and that age is highest in most of the resort communities on barrier islands.
The ability for communities like Stone Harbor to sustain a sole volunteer department, drawing on membership from within the community, is no longer viable. Relying on younger volunteers from neighboring mainland communities significantly impacts response time. It can also leave responding firefighters with less personnel than regulations require when they go on a service call.
Stone Harbor, like other county municipalities, has experimented with stipends and other incentives to ensure overnight coverage, especially during the high-population, high-call-volume summer.
One additional benefit of adding paid firefighters in Stone Harbor was the commitment to train and qualifyeach new career firefighter in the delivery of EMS.
State Division of Fire Safety statistics (https://bit.ly/2UDnl0s) show that the county has 26 fire departments, of which 21 are entirely volunteer units. Two others are career departments, and three are designated as a combination of career and volunteer. Those same statistics point to 35 fire stations, 140 career firefighters, and 782 volunteers. The statistics include a county fire marshal, county fire coordinator, and a firefighter unit at the Coast Guard base.
These types of statistics tend to get outdated quickly, but even when they are not precisely accurate, they provide a glimpse into the mix of operating structures that provide emergency service in the county, dependent as well on mutual aid agreements among largely volunteer units.
Ambulance squads and EMS suffer from many of the same difficulties. Financial pressures are significant on non-profit entities. Volunteers and even paid EMTs must deal with rising training requirements, increases in the time commitments needed and the fact that cost of living issues often leave them unable to live in some of the communities they serve.
This year, the Lower Township Rescue Squad ceased operation after serving the community since 1950. Financial pressure built up on the small, nonprofit squad, allowing the pandemic to deal the death blow. The municipality moved to an outside professional contract for providing the services.
Lower Township also removed any residency requirement for volunteer firefighters to “facilitate additional volunteers.” The move allowed individuals who reside in “immediately adjacent municipalities” the opportunity to join one of the municipality’s volunteer fire companies.
In Avalon, the borough approved a stipend program for its volunteer fire department in 2016. Its sole stated purpose was to “have a crew of firefighters in the firehouse overnight.”
Statistics showed that the borough that year had 250 calls for service by the fire company, with 64 of those coming between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. The stipend program, which has been altered at various times, has helped with coverage, but one report to Avalon Borough Council stated that the program “did not result in attracting new members.”
The National Fire Prevention Association reports that the number of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 of the population has been declining since 1986. The U.S. Fire Administration reports 716 registered fire departments in New Jersey, with 70% of those all-volunteer and another 16% mostly so.
The preponderance of dependence on volunteer departments and the evidence of a steady decline in available volunteers will continue to put new pressures on municipal budgets. How much change will come is unclear, but the pressure for new strategies is likely to continue to build.
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