Volunteer fire departments see shortage of millennial firefighters

WISCONSIN - Fire departments all over Wisconsin, especially in rural areas, are struggling to recruit millennials who want to leave for bigger opportunities, and state lawmakers are wondering what they can do.

"A lot of those people that graduate high school, they're off looking for bigger and better things," Chief Greg Hlinak with the Kewaunee Fire Department said. 

The "brain drain" is a major concern for towns and cities all over the Badger State.

The Wisconsin state legislature commissioned a study in 2016 to figure out why younger generations are not replacing older volunteer firefighters, and the study may come up with recommendations for how the state can help, or add laws that could help. 

Many millennials want to go to college and move to bigger cities, leaving their small town roots behind.

"In that respect, we lose a lot of our young people, we rely mostly on our older-type personnel that live in town here, work in town," Hlinak said. "We're looking for the younger people that aren't here."

There are multiple challenges at hand.

As many of the older volunteers start to retire, the departments are having a hard time replacing them.

Factor in that volunteer firefighting is a side job, so most volunteers have day jobs in rural areas, where millennials are moving away from.

Volunteer firefighting also requires getting up in the middle of the night, or dropping everything they were doing when the alarm goes off. 

Another challenge? Getting millennials to notice these jobs on a platform that they like. 

"Somebody had mentioned, well why don't you put an ad in the paper, well who looks at a paper today? You know everything today, it's social media," Hlinak explained.

The average age of a volunteer firefighter at the Kewaunee Fire Department is about 40, Hlinak said.

As volunteers get older, the physical demands of the job get harder.

"Back when I was 22 years old, ripe, young age where I could get up, climb ladders, swing an ax, put on self-contained breathing apparatus, without thinking about it twice, now that I'm a little bit older, I can't do them types of things I did in my twenties," Hlinak said.

He says his fire department has just hired six volunteer firefighters in their twenties, with two openings left to fill.

He's looking for the ones who will get up at a moment's notice to protect their community. 

"Offering them a challenge whether they want to experience fighting a fire," Hlinak said.


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