Aaron Hankins standing next to a fire engine in front of the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department.
Aaron Hankins pictured in front of the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department. (Photo by Thomas Copeland/KFSK)

The number of volunteer firefighters in Alaska has nearly halved since 2014, according to State Fire Marshal data. And it could be putting communities at risk.

You can find the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department about a mile out of town. Aaron Hankins is the Director of Fire, EMS, and Search and Rescue. He is one of just three employees at the station. The rest are a ll volunteers. Hankins was doing a routine vehicle inspection after a fire which engulfed Petersburg’s Catholic Church earlier this month. When there aren’t enough volunteers available, that can hold back the rest from doing their jobs.

“We shift from an offensive, go in, fight fire where it’s at, to a more defensive posture,” said Hankins. “We call it surround-and-drowned, and [we’re] trying to fight the fire that may be burning inside from the outside of the building.”

This situation will sound very familiar to Alaska fire chiefs. The number of volunteer firefighters across the state plummeted by 45% since 2014. That’s more than double the decline seen nationwide. Justin Boddy is the president of the Alaska State Firefighters Association. He says the huge drop in volunteers is particularly stark when he thinks back to volunteer training sessions a decade ago. 

“You would have a packed house,” said Boddy. “You would have every vehicle, every apparatus in the fleet staffed for that night on that dedicated training night. And now you are lucky if you can staff one or two vehicles.”

And while volunteers are clearing out, the phone lines are getting busier. Calls to U.S. fire departments have more than tripled since the 80s. And the type of emergencies are totally different these days too. 

“Everybody calls 911 now, if they have a problem,” said Boddy. “So now, we’re not just going to medical emergencies and cars or structure fires. And now we are going to all rescue scenarios, hazardous materials, service calls, downed power line utility calls, and much, much more. So that has really expanded what we are required to train on and what we are depended on in our communities for.”

Alaska faces another pretty unique problem. Among first responders, there’s this thing called mutual aid. Basically, if there is a big fire in a town, fire engines from the next town over can race down the road to help out. But Alaska has a lot of hard-to-reach communities, like Petersburg, on an island — or Nome, which is off the highway system. 

“There is no comparison of resource availability from the Lower 48 compared to Alaska,” said Boddy. “[The] Lower 48 can keep requesting resources from miles and miles and miles away where we do not have that luxury here in Alaska because of the lack of resources or our isolation of our communities.”

This isn’t just a problem for fire departments. Volunteering in general has declined in America over the last 15 years, said Dr. Nathan Dietz, research director of the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland. He said that income, community bonds, faith groups and time could all be factors. Right now, however, nobody can say for sure why volunteering is down. 

“These are questions I think that people who study civil society should all be trying to address,” said Dietz.

But Dietz is positive about one thing. The pandemic made everything worse. Data from AmeriCorps show that volunteering in this country has fallen by 7% since 2019. That drop even took Dietz by surprise. 

“That’s four or five percentage points more than any drop that I’ve ever seen in the past,” said Dietz.

He says the pandemic impacted volunteering in two ways. First: it broke our habits. 

“People were first unable to do what they always had done,” said Dietz. “And when they were able to do it, then they kind of did a top to bottom re-think of all the things that they had been committed to doing.”

The second way: people got used to being online.

“The part of their routine was to go over to the place where they did volunteering and go do volunteer work,” said Hankins. “But when they couldn’t do that, then they start doing other things online. Now that they can go back to the organization, I would think many probably haven’t.”

But you can’t battle a burning building in front of your laptop. So back at the Petersburg Fire Department, Aaron Hankins said he needs to find new ways of attracting volunteers. There is at least one thing that seems to work — seeing firefighters in action. 

“Since the fire last week, we’ve had about five people sign up using our online website,” said Hankins. “[We’re] very happy to have those folks be interested. We do have those instances of major fire, and the town realizes, oh, there’s only a couple guys walking outside.”

If Alaska fire departments want to keep functioning, they’ll need a more sustainable recruitment strategy than simply waiting for the next big blaze. All the while, folks like Hankins have to keep their departments up to code.