Stone Harbor is an affluent borough, dominated by seasonal residences like other barrier island communities in South Jersey. Those characteristics present a challenge to staffing the necessary firefighting and emergency medical services.
The year-round population is small compared to the number of dwellings that always need protection and the large summer population. And cost of housing is high, further limiting the pool of potential public services workers residing in town where response to emergencies is quick.
When the borough’s volunteer fire service was running short of staff three years ago, the Stone Harbor Council provided a stipend to boost the number of volunteers. That still left gaps in coverage on weekends and holidays.
Of 54 volunteers with the company, only eight are Stone Harbor residents and their average age is 60.
Nearby Sea Isle City faces similar issues, struggling to attract volunteers and relying on some living on the mainland who need significantly longer to get to emergencies in the city.
In February, the Stone Harbor Council took a bolder and more permanent step — approving the hiring of seven full-time firefighters who will also serve as emergency medical technicians. That’s enough to ensure there will be two at the fire station to quickly respond and start firefighting operations before volunteers arrive. The paid firefighters are expected to start Jan. 1 next year.
The borough is following a strategy used this year by Princeton Township, which hired six firefighter-EMTs at an annual cost of about $800,000.
The need to address the decline in volunteers might be showing up early in these affluent municipalities and on seasonal barrier islands, but it is coming to small communities of all kinds everywhere.
A report last year by the National Fire Protection Association found that U.S. volunteer firefighters have dropped from 884,600 when it began surveying in 1983 to 682,600 in 2017 (its most recent survey year). In just the most recent year, volunteer numbers fell by 47,000.
At the same time, the volunteers are getting older. In 2000, just 19% were over age 50 and in the latest survey that has risen to 32%.
Reasons for the decline and aging include that a major commitment to training is now required for volunteers, that small communities have been losing population to urban areas, and that fire departments handle far more medical calls than fires.
State and federal governments are helping with programs to fund recruiting, training and equipment. Fire departments are increasing incentives for volunteers and improving their online marketing.
But it’s inevitable that more municipalities, especially smaller ones, will need to supplement volunteers with paid personnel.
Sharing services might provide some efficiency and help a little with costs, but the need to have local, quickly responding responders will limit such savings.
Local governments will have to find more room for these essential services in budgets dominated by school and other municipal costs.
New Jersey residents already pay the highest property taxes in the nation and getting them to shoulder the costs of what formerly were volunteer services won’t be as easy as it has been for the towns of Stone Harbor and Princeton.