Report reveals grim future for fire, EMS services

A recent state report, commissioned by the General Assembly and prepared by a workgroup of fire and EMS providers and state and local officials, paints a grim picture of the challenges faced by fire and EMS teams across Virginia.

According to Charlotte County Board of Supervisor member and Phenix Fire Department Chief Walt Bailey, a striking 87% of cities and counties in the state participated in the survey, representing nearly 7.5 million Virginia citizens.

The survey highlighted that pass-through funding, a growing call volume, and a decrease in volunteer providers have led to unsustainable situations in localities related to fire and EMS. Over the last three years, call volume has surged by 40%, while state-level funding for fire and EMS has only increased by 6.67%. Moreover, escalating equipment costs have resulted in the use of older equipment and longer replacement plans.

The workgroup discovered that statewide calls for EMS and fire service increased by 39% from fiscal years 2021 to 2023. 

Simultaneously, local officials and service providers surveyed reported a decline in volunteers — a critical issue considering that approximately 70% of fire departments in the state rely on unpaid service providers.

Bailey attributed the decline in fire and EMS workers to several factors. “COVID presented the perfect storm,” Bailey said, adding that the number of volunteers has steadily decreased. “Most volunteers used to come from high school students interested in joining the fire department or rescue squad, but that interest has waned in recent years,” he said. 

The report also revealed that the average age of providers is increasing, and young people are not as inclined to join.

The report indicated that localities reported a total of 19,299 fire and EMS providers, both career and volunteer. 

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in 2023, 70.7% of fire departments are staffed by volunteers, slightly above the national average of 70%. The survey further noted that 91% of respondents reported a decrease in volunteer fire and EMS providers over the past three years, with financial constraints, employment policies, and reduced interest from younger generations cited as major contributors to this decline.

Chris Taylor, an EMS worker pursuing a career in the field, highlighted COVID-19 as a turning point in the increased decline in both career and volunteer workers. “With COVID, people saw what could happen if a major sickness broke out,” Taylor explained. He also emphasized the toll that EMS work takes on the body, both mentally and physically, noting that the compensation does not adequately support the demands of the job.

Recently, investigations into the Office of Emergency Medical Services revealed the mismanagement of millions of dollars over the years by state government leaders. Because of this, EMS crews statewide are unable to apply for grants to purchase essential equipment, sometimes leaving them with outdated equipment.

The report also revealed that 82% of localities always meet the minimum staffing standards required by the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, implying that 18% of the Commonwealth is inadequately protected regarding EMS. 

In contrast, 70% of localities stated that they could only sometimes, never, or rarely meet the minimum safety standards for fire protection, as per the National Fire Protection Association.