According to the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), the number of volunteer firefighters hit an all-time low in 2011. Since then, volunteer fire departments struggle to increase staff to meet the rising number of calls.
Many La Crosse County fire departments are considered volunteer departments. Local firefighters tell News 19 that they see a the decline in volunteer firefighters locally.
Firefighters risk their lives to serve the public. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 70 percent of firefighters in the United States serve voluntarily, taking on the risks with little to no pay.
"We're getting reports from many, many communities that recruiting volunteers to be emergency responders is very, very difficult right now," said Keith Butler, Emergency Management with La Crosse County.
"It's a nationwide problem that only has local variables and local solutions," said Fire Chief Nate Melby with the Campbell Fire Department.
Melby sees volunteer firefighters leave for numerous reasons including the demands of a day job and the lack of career opportunities or housing in the area.
"It's really life circumstances that make those changes," Melby said.
Volunteer firefighters do more than just fight fire.
"We respond to any type of emergency," Melby said. "We respond to hazardous material calls, vehicle accidents, flooding, fires."
The time commitment can hurt recruitment and retainment.
"In some ways, it is kind of a thankless service," Melby said. "But, it's a noble service."
Melby said there is not going to be just one solution as reasons for the decline vary on a station-by-station basis.
"The challenge is because it's different everywhere, there's not a silver bullet kind of solution," he said.
In the end, it comes down to the personal decision to serve the community.
"The biggest reward for me personally is an opportunity to serve a community that I care about very much in a way that I know makes a difference," Melby said.
There are currently 35 volunteer firefighters serving with the Campbell Fire Department. That number is up from only 16 in 2008. Melby said the department uses different tools to recruit and retain firefighters including $17 per call and recognition of service.
Another benefit of volunteer firefighters is saving money for the taxpayers. The National Fire Protection Association estimates volunteer firefighters save communities across the country nearly $140 billion each year.
To become a volunteer firefighter, contact your local fire chief to start the process.