Press "Enter" to skip to content

Busy Lives, Local Cliques Hinder Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment

South Dakota may be a great place to do business, but it seems workers   don’t have the time to put out fires:

As volunteers leave or retire, it has been getting more difficult for many rural fire departments to replace them.

“Across the state it’s a challenge in getting individuals in that 25 to 40 age range,” said Charlie Kludt, the president of the South Dakota Firefighters Association and member of the Viborg Fire Department.

“It is becoming more difficult than it was in the past more so because there is a lot more family activity time, kids are involved…,” he said.

Potential volunteers in the 25 to 40 age range are busier with that increased family and activity time and don’t have as much time to devote to a volunteer organization like a fire department, Kludt said.

…Kludt said the environment has changed over the years. It was more common several years ago for firefighters to sit and talk after a fire call, fire training or meetings, he said. But work demands and family and personal demands mean firefighters don’t hang around to socialize after a call, training or monthly meeting, he said [Rae Yost, “Who Will Put Out the Fire? Officials Say It’s Getting Tough to Find, Keep Volunteer Firefighters,” KELO-TV, 2020.11.07].

Yost cites voluminously from an August 2020 National Volunteer Fire Council survey of the challenges local fire departments nationwide face in retaining volunteers. Yet Yost somehow misses one key disparity in the survey findings between how department leaders perceive retention issues and how non-leaders and volunteers who’ve left fire departments perceive retention issues. Among volunteers not serving in leadership positions, the survey found widespread dissatisfaction with the “good old boys club” nature of local fire departments:

In an open-ended question, it was reported that problems stemming from leadership was one of the most common reasons for volunteers thinking about leaving their department. Many cited the “old school” mindset as an issue with their leadership – an unwillingness to adapt to the times, listen to new ideas, and poor treatment of the volunteers who don’t conform to their norm.

  • “Because the volunteers are treated like second class citizens. The volunteers are treated like they are just disposable assets.”
  • “Don’t find that my dept is working towards the future. It’s pretty much been stuck in the 1990s for the past 30 years.”
  • “Fire Chief is not trained to state best practices, or to a standard, nor are any chief officers required to have any training.”
  • “Plainly said, the good old boys club is the problem.”

Favoritism in leadership and cliques were also frequently mentioned in regard to poor leadership and were a contributing factor to many volunteers leaving. The favoritism can lead to bitterness – not everyone at the department is held to the same standards. The cliques cause isolation for those not included, which causes new recruits to leave and creates silos that lead to poor collaboration and camaraderie among members.

  • “Department is very cliquey and only those who conform to the clique survive, the majority of members do not and a typical new member lasts no more than a year or two.”
  • “Lack of respect for the members who do the bulk of the call response, and favoritism towards the boys who grew up local. It’s very demoralizing to run rescue calls all week then get bumped from a fire apparatus by a member who runs in just for the fire call. Despite a requirement for members to make 10% of calls, these local boys have not met their 10% for years but there are no consequences for them. It makes those of us doing the bulk of the calls feel disrespected and unsupported.”
  • “A lot of silos built in the department and groups of people who team together to obtain power of the department” [National Volunteer Fire Council, “Volunteer Retention Research Report,” August 2020].

Kludt thinks South Dakota could replenish its firefighter ranks by recruiting all the immigrants who are doing our vital food-factory work:

“In southeast corner where I’m from we have several large dairy operations. A lot of immigrants come to work in those,” Kludt said.

“From a fire and ambulance perspective, we need to be capitalizing on that,” Kludt said.

Departments can recruit those immigrants as volunteer firefighters, Kludt said. They’d be in traditional roles on the fire department but they could also be a resource when translators are need at a fire call, Kludt said [Yost, 2020.11.07].

Yeah, but recruiting Hispanic, Karen, and Somali workers from the CAFOs and slaughterhouses is going to take more than some friendly chit-chat. It’s going to take labor reforms so those workers aren’t drained by exploitative employers and have some time left each week to tote our hoses. It’s also going to take a full jettisoning of the cliquey-ness, not to mention full racism, that excludes those workers from full participation in community life.

We might also have to ask why we are expecting volunteers to provide the vital public service of fire suppression. We don’t have volunteer sheriff’s departments, or volunteer teachers, or volunteer county auditors, yet 96.6% of South Dakota’s 294 registered fire departments are all or mostly volunteer.

If South Dakota is a great place to do business, it ought to be generating the wealth and leisure time that would allow its workers to serve their community. If we offer an inviting business climate, we also ought to be able to offer an inviting social climate in which everyone feels welcome participating in community activities like firefighting. But if our eyes are fixed on dollars, if we view new workers as mere resources to exploit for quick profit, we’ll see the continued decline of the necessary social services and community bonds that make South Dakota a great place for any kind of living, economic or cultural.


  1. leslie 2020-11-09 08:19

    Cory your output from 6:27 to 7:21 this morning is nothing short of fantastic. Thank you for these meaningful topics!!

  2. Mark Anderson 2020-11-09 16:47

    This is an old, old topic. When my family first moved to Highmore in 1963 one of the guys who moved there to work with my father at the electrical plant in Fort Thompson attempted to volunteer for the fire department. Good luck with that one.

  3. Jenny 2020-11-09 17:32

    You’ve just gotta tell those rednecks off. I’m from Highmore also and I love riling them up with my liberal politics, very amusing.

  4. Scott 2020-11-09 18:46

    I have been saying for several years that keeping EMS and Fire services going is a BIG problem in SD. Some of the problems mentioned in this story will have to be dealt with within the community.

    However, we expect these volunteers to donate their time and risk their lives, but to do so they have to volunteer their time to raise money so they have equipment. That is something that we need to deal with as a state. We can find money to build a new football field, but dam if you want a new dependable ambulance you better start baking, washing cars, or begging for auction gifts.

    At a minimum the state of SD should offer to reimburse these volunteers for their training cost and time, including day care expenses. The state supposedly has a new income source from pot, so lets put that toward volunteer EMS and Fire services.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-11-09 18:51

    Hey, Leslie, I’m glad you appreciate a little non-election news. We have to keep our eyes on the other pots a-boiling in our fair state.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-11-09 18:53

    Mark, how can a bunch of public servants get that cliquey? I mean, is there some maybe quasi-justifiable root of that cliqueyness, a camaraderie built in shared-death-defying risk that inclines those long-time volunteers to be hesitant about trusting their lives with newcomers?

    Or are we just mostly exclusivist small-town rubes who don’t know how to accept the help we need and share our burdens with new willing helpers?

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-11-09 18:56

    I can’t speak with any authority, since I haven’t volunteered to put out fires (weighing 155 after a good turkey dinner, I might need to work out to carry those 90-pound loads and qualify). But if I were running a fire squad, and I got the sense any of my people were saying or doing things that made new volunteers not want to stick around, I’d drop the hammer immediately: “We’re here to save property and save lives. Period. Nothing else matters.” it boggles me that any firefighter would have to be given such advice.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-11-09 18:58

    Scott, community protection by bake sale is absurd. Your comment makes me think that part of our problem is our South Dakota austerity, trying to get by on the cheap instead of investing in sustainable public services. You’re not even talking about the idea that we might have to pay firefighters; you’re just talking about how step one to better recruiting might be funding the gear they need so volunteers can focus on the brave work of fighting fires, not the dreary work of fundraising. Volunteering to run toward fire is all the volunteering we should expect of a firefighter. The rest of us should cover all the expenses.

  9. Jenny 2020-11-10 05:27

    Funding EMS and Fire Services properly is socialism working for the common good. You mean rugged individualism and doing it on your own isn’t working here? Cry me a river, South Dakota. If you weren’t so anti-socialism obsessed and hired some Democrats in Pierre to work for you, you would get the money needed for fire departments.

    Cory, small rural towns are the worst for cliqueyness.

  10. Nick Krebs 2020-11-11 08:08

    This isn’t very hard to figure out. It’s about economics. The most current info I found shows South Dakotans working multiple jobs at twice the national rate.

    At the same time, SD has the 4th most regressive tax system in the country.

    The solution:
    1) Implement a progressive state income tax that doesn’t start until you’ve exceeded the poverty level.
    2) Eliminate the tax on groceries.
    3) Pay emergency service volunteers (firefighters, EMTs, etc.) for both time spent on calls and for training.

    This frees up potential volunteers from one of their additional jobs, ensures a community service is provided, it reduces the tax burden for hardworking young families, and it funds the service in a way that actually grows the economy. Think trickle up economics. This type of solution just might solve many of South Dakota’s problems. Why Democrats aren’t running on this message escapes me. Sell the tax cut for working people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.