By JONATHAN GANCI
Capital News Service
LANSING – With operating budgets for fire departments shrinking, the need for volunteer and paid on-call firefighters is rising, some fire chiefs say.
A bill by Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, would allow introductory firefighter training programs to be taught to 16- and 17-year olds in school, and by fire departments themselves.
Currently, only the Boy Scouts of America and some community colleges offer such training.
The bill would increase awareness of the programs and attract younger individuals to the profession, according to Kahn.
Kahn said either the local fire department or the student taking the course would pay the cost.
The co-sponsors include Sens. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton; James Marleau, R-Lake Orion; and John Proos, R-St. Joseph.
Doug Halstead, chief of the city of Burton Fire and Rescue, said there’s a need for more firefighters.
Burton normally carries 65 on-call firefighters, but currently has only 52.
Many on-call firefighters, who get paid by the call, have left the state in search of steadier employment, according to Halstead.
The state could use 2,000 more firefighters, Halstead said.
Halstead, who is president of the Michigan Associations of Fire Chiefs, said that getting young people involved in fire services earlier would increase their commitment to the job.
“The ones who become certified from this program are definitely going to have the desire to be here,” Halstead said. “You’ll have people who are inspired, that would do anything they could to get on a fire department.”
Halstead said that exposing younger people to firefighting would provide time to make sure the occupation is for right them while allowing them to master the job.
“Their minds are fresher, more receptive and less encumbered as a young person,” Halstead said.
“We do so much more than we used to. It’s become much more of a finely tuned profession. We don’t just rush in with a hose and water anymore.”
Bill Deckett, chief of the East Tawas Fire Department, said the bill could help since many departments in northern Michigan depend on on-call personnel.
“We are always looking for volunteers,” Deckett said. “If they could come out of high school with a certificate, that would help our pool.”
Deckett, a director of the fire chiefs group, said that it is important to attract people to fire services because it’s a basic need for communities.
“We are lucky here to have a full roster, but there are places that when the pager goes off, only two or three people show up,” Deckett said.
However, Deckett said the legislation wouldn’t help unless “the economy changes.”
That’s because like Burton, East Tawas has seen many members leave the department for other jobs since firefighting is only part-time, Deckett said.
According to Deckett, his department has seen enormous turnover in the last five years because “people have to move on and look for a livelihood.”
The bill is pending in the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.