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These people deserve our thanks

Volunteer firefighters and EMS crews are essential to rural communities in Iowa, Minnesota and nationwide. These volunteers rush to emergencies to help their friends, neighbors and relatives and their involvement adds so much to the quality of life within their communities.

Demand for services continues to grow while communities struggle to find enough volunteers to staff these vital positions.

The National Volunteer Fire Council reports that the number of calls to volunteer fire departments tripled from 12 million in 1986 to 34 million in 2015. During the same timeframe, the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide remained unchanged at approximately 808,200. It should be noted that 70 percent of all fire departments nationwide are volunteer.

The council says the spike in calls is due to medical emergencies.

Minnesota has 20,000 firefighters in 780 departments. Of those, 18,000 are either staffed by volunteers or paid on-call firefighters.

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Volunteer ambulance and fire crews often have overlapping staff in smaller communities. There are about 4,000 EMTs and certified first responders within the fire departments.

The National Volunteer Fire Council says more calls, increased time and training demands, and hampered recruitment efforts are hurdles. An aging population, especially in rural communities, has added to the problem.

Nearly 30 percent of volunteers in towns with populations of 10,000 to 24,999 are younger than 30 and 19 percent are 50 or older. The numbers are reversed in rural communities that have populations of less than 2,500.

Forty-seven volunteers died in the line of duty in 2015. Stress, overexertion and heart attacks were the biggest causes, the council said. Long-term health issues also are cause for concern, it added.

Those who recruit volunteers say the task is getting tougher because the rural population is aging, potential recruits lack free time, and many people lack roots in the communities in which they live.

Minnesota moved to help volunteers in 2009 when the Legislature passed a statewide volunteer firefighter retirement plan. Individual departments receive grants to help with equipment purchases and training opportunities. New technology that is now more readily available to departments is already saving lives. Grain entrapment victims have a better chance of survival due to specialized rescue equipment.

Volunteer ambulance crew members and volunteer firefighters have indeed given back so much to the communities in which they serve. They deserve a pat on the back and our continued support.

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