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Delaware Senate Democrats

Legislative Task Force Releases Recommendations to Bolster Volunteer Fire Companies

June 14, 2021

DOVER – A task force charged with developing a long-range plan to halt the worsening shortage of volunteer firefighters in Delaware laid out a 10-point recruitment and retention plan last week to solve the membership crisis now threatening the delivery of fire protection through the state.

The task force’s recommendations include enhancing existing tax credits for volunteer fire company members, providing tuition reimbursement for volunteer firefighters, adding public safety courses in Delaware’s vocational high schools, and undertaking a coordinated marketing campaign designed to promote the benefits of volunteer fire service to young people.

“For over 200 years, the volunteer firefighter has served as Delaware’s first line of defense against the accidental and intentionally set fires that threaten the lives of neighbors and cause millions of dollars in property damage each year,” said Sen. Bruce Ennis, co-chair of the Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention Task Force and a life member of Citizens’ Hose Company No. 1 in Smyrna.

“Today, the wall that has protected Delaware families for generations is being threatened by apathy and neglect as our volunteer fire companies struggle to recruit new members and raise the public donations they depend on for their very survival,” he said. “The plan put forward by this task force may not reverse the national trends that are causing volunteer fire departments to close across the country, but it will help to hold the line here in Delaware and hopefully even breathe new life into the public service organizations that have protected us for generations.”

The Delaware General Assembly established the Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention Task Force in 2019 to address the dwindling number of volunteer firefighters in the state.

Enrollment in the entry-level training course offered by the Delaware State Fire School fell to fewer than 190 prospective firefighters in 2019 – less than half the number who took the course a decade earlier.

That decline is expected to have serious public safety consequences across Delaware, where 57% of fire departments are mostly made up of volunteers and more than 40% are all-volunteer.

The task force found that most volunteer fire departments are also receiving only a 12% response to their annual fund drive campaigns – a fact attributed to the erroneous belief that Delaware fire departments are fully funded by state and local governments.

“Many Delaware residents aren’t aware that the majority of the firefighters who respond to emergencies up and down our state aren’t paid for their services. These men and women do this because of a desire to serve their communities – and all of us benefit greatly from them,” said Task Force Chair Rep. Larry Mitchell, a 52-year life member of the Elsmere Fire Company. “These recommendations are designed to stem the decline in membership and hopefully revitalize our volunteer firefighting service for the 21st century. I look forward to bringing these proposals forward in the near future.”

Members of the task force include legislators from both chambers and both political parties, along with members of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association from all three counties, and representatives from the Governor’s Office, the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, the Delaware State Fire Prevention Commission, the Department of Health and Social Services’ Volunteerism Office and the Department of Education.

Recommendations from the task force include:

  • Develop a recruitment and retention training class at the Delaware State Fire School to share best practices across departments.
  • Establish an AmeriCorps Program through the DHSS Volunteerism Office that would assign full-time members to companies in all three counties with stipends paid by county governments.
  • Add a training administrator to the Delaware State Fire School to manage the AmeriCorps program.
  • Expand the Sussex County Operation GEM cadet firefighter program for children ages 10-15 to all school districts.
  • Launch a volunteer firefighter recruitment website and marketing program paid for and administered by the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association.
  • Promote the advantages and potential career opportunities that come with joining volunteer fire companies to youth in Wilmington.
  • Offer public safety classes in firefighting, EMT and/or EMR through the Career Technical Education programs offered by Delaware’s vocational technical school districts.
  • Make courses taught by the Delaware State Fire School eligible for college credits.
  • Offer tuition reimbursement to undergraduate and graduate students attending higher education institutions in Delaware who volunteer with a local fire company for a set number of hours.
  • Increase the income tax credit available to volunteer fire company members from $400 to $1,000.

“The men and women of Delaware’s Volunteer Fire Service make a difference in the lives of Delawareans every day,” said Warren Jones, executive manager of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association. “We hope more people will see the need to serve their communities and join this great group of dedicated individuals. We are looking forward to the Task Forces’ recommendations to turn the tide in the decline in volunteerism.”