Here’s a question for the future: Where will America get enough firefighters?
A report from back in January describes the difficulty of finding and keeping new volunteer firefighters. The number has been falling for decades, dropping by about 12 percent from 1984 to about 788,000 volunteer firefights in 2014, says the report in Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Work and life have changed, the story says. People drive farther to work and have less flexibility to leave when the firebell rings. Firefighters, mostly men, are more involved in child care, and their wives are more often working. Younger people have left rural areas to find work in cities.
The changes are particularly hard on rural areas, which depend on volunteer fire departments. Some states are trying to make the volunteer work more attractive by offering tax breaks.
About 87 percent of U.S. fire departments are run mostly or entirely by volunteers — 96 percent in West Virginia, the report says.
Citing a report from the National Fire Protection Association, the Stateline story says volunteer firefighters are estimated to save local governments $139.8 billion a year in pay, benefits, operating expenses and maintenance.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported last fall that police departments are loosening up on qualifications such as educational requirements and some prior drug use. The reason is to draw more recruits in a time when interest is down because of low pay, physical demands, danger and intense public scrutiny.
There could be an upside to rethinking those requirements. Responsible police chiefs want departments that look like and communicate well with the populations they protect. It can be tough for some minority applicants to get past a criminal background check because black citizens are more likely to have encounters with the criminal justice system, the report says.
In Baltimore, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is working to change the rule prohibiting the city from hiring someone who admits to having used marijuana within the previous three years, the top reason applicants are disqualified from the force.
“I don’t want to hire altar boys to be police officers, necessarily,” the article cites Davis as saying in The Baltimore Sun. “I want people of good character, of good moral character, but I want people who have lived a life just like everybody else — a life not unlike the lives of the people who they are going to be interacting with every day.”
Empathy is an important quality in police officers.
Burnout among social workers is nothing new. A combination of low pay and emotionally demanding duties can wear people out. Still, some places, including West Virginia, managed to keep social workers in public and private positions in the past, where they built up institutional knowledge and mentored the next generation.
That has been changing for years. A recent story from Governing magazine highlights the difficulties — and costs — of high turnover among people who do things such as find permanent homes for abused or neglected children or help parents navigate programs to get help, comply with rules and keep their children.
It has gotten so bad in some places that states are trying new things — lowering educational requirements to make the price of preparation more commensurate with the low pay new hires will receive. Some are trying to weed out people who might not be able to handle the emotional toll of the job, and they are shortening and reconfiguring on-the-job training time.
The stakes are high. Social workers develop relationships with the families they are responsible for helping. Conditions that interfere with those relationships erode trust — in individuals and in the programs intended to help.
The report cites one study that found that a child with one caseworker had a 74 percent chance to get a permanent and stable home. But if the child had two caseworkers in a year, the chance dropped to 17 percent, and with three caseworkers, it was only 5 percent.
Getting this stuff wrong costs. It costs states and governments time and money in training and retraining. It costs overburdened employees in stress and lost income when they give up and quit. It costs families and children who, already fragile and vulnerable, need the professionals assigned to helping them to be healthy and capable. Interventions at these moments in people’s lives when they turn to social workers can affect the trajectory of the rest of their lives, for good or bad.