Sounding the alarm: losing volunteer firefighters is an unsettling trend 


Last week’s news that fire departments are having difficulty recruiting volunteer firefighters should not be taken lightly. While maybe not a five-alarm fire, it underscores a troubling trend on the Island.

Vineyard fire departments have historically been run predominantly — if not entirely — by volunteer or “call” firefighters, aside from the full-time chiefs and other top officials. Call firefighters are paid a minor stipend for their training and for responding to emergencies, but it isn’t a ton of money. Definitely not enough to make a living. 

But then again, money has never really been the reason most get involved. 

The pride in helping and protecting your neighbor and the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that comes with serving are the motivating forces.

A number of Island chiefs, with confirmation from volunteers, say that it is getting harder and harder to recruit call firefighters, and at least Oak Bluffs is considering a switch to a career department, meaning they plan to hire a number of full-time staff; other department chiefs say it could be a matter of time before they do as well. Even further, Edgartown fire chief Alexander Schaefer says that, thinking decades into the future, they are designing a new fire station that will likely accommodate firefighters who may be commuting to the Island.

The reasons for the decline in numbers, like most everything, are from a combination of factors. According to Island chiefs and firefighters we spoke to, the reasons include an increase in training requirements and the time constraints that come with that; there is a changing culture — not just on the Vineyard, but nationally — that we don’t value volunteering like generations prior; and the hustle and bustle of everyday life, from jobs to family life, have left little time for other opportunities. 

But what may be more unique and concerning for Island life is the lack of housing and the decline in year-round residents — a decline in the middle class and blue collar workers, the demographics which have historically been the ones who answered the call to public service, risking their lives to fight fires.

Another reason, which we did not hear explicitly from firefighters but which seems a fair question: are firefighters sick of responding to emergencies in the offseason that are more often than not a false alarm, or sometimes to save an empty house and its belongings, rather than who is inside. In other words, with more empty homes in the winter, firefighters may be losing what they originally joined the force to do: serving to help protect the people in their community. 

Of course, firefighting is just one aspect of a functioning community, albeit an important one. But they are hardly alone. In front of state lawmakers, school administrators, healthcare officials, and top law enforcement have been stating the same worry and concern. They have been essentially pleading for more help to preserve a year-round workforce on the Island with affordable housing. Local businesses, including us at The MV Times, have struggled to retain staff from the Island as well.

For Capt. Nelson Dickson, not unlike many other volunteers, there’s a real sadness for him that comes with the decline in volunteer firefighters. Both of his grandfathers were call firefighters on the Island, as well as both of his parents. He joined the Oak Bluffs department as a junior in high school, along with a handful of fellow classmates, and he has fond memories of the camaraderie that the older generation provided. They built a community, and it’s fading.

While we have all the confidence that fire departments will continue to respond and put out fires as they have — and hiring full time staffers may be the way to do it — Dickson’s fading family tradition and the chiefs’ concerns about the loss of the call firefighters worry us that this tale feels like one more loose thread in a fraying community fabric, a fabric that has always made the Vineyard such a unique and wonderful place. 

It is a trend that we all need to be wary of.