What if no one is there when you need emergency help?

Volunteer firefighter numbers are declining rapidly across the U.S.


After nearly 30 years as a volunteer firefighter, one thought, or perhaps one fear, keeps Jake Smith going.

“What if there was a call and nobody showed up?” he asked.

It’s a very real concern as the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. is in rapid decline.

Volunteer firefighters provide lifesaving coverage to more than 70% of the United States and account for roughly 65% of all firefighters in America. That means, on potentially the worst day of your life, your call for help will be answered by someone who does it not for money, but for community.

“Many of our volunteer stations have an aging crew,” Sarah Lee, CEO for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said. “And many of our volunteers stay on because they love what they do, the service they provide. But they also stay on because they’re afraid if they retire there won’t be someone ready to replace them. So, if people are wondering if there’s a need the simple answer is yes. Of course.”

… they’re afraid if they retire there won't be someone ready to replace them.

Sarah Lee

Lights, camera, action

Smith, a product development specialist for five years at John Deere, represents a growing number of Deere employees who have chosen firefighting to support their home communities. And the John Deere Foundation has shown its support by honoring those employees by donating money to qualified nonprofits for each volunteer hour the employee records.

“We know more volunteer firefighters are needed all over the United States and beyond,” said Nate Clark, president of the Foundation.

Attention, Clark said, was needed. That's why Deere recently joined forces with the National Volunteer Fire Council, Hold Fast Features, and Vignette to produce a documentary film called "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat.”. The hope was to shine a positive light on a type of service that is both noble and necessary.

“(The film is) paying tribute to the amazing service being done while also, hopefully, inspiring others to sign up,” Clark said.

Why give back?

It could be considered trite to label volunteer firefighting a “calling,” but that’s often how it’s described. Most grew up around it while others were inspired by a life event. For Loren Mc Intosh, he lived both in a way he’ll never forget.

Mc Intosh, chief at the Wapello County Rural Fire Department and employee at John Deere Ottumwa Works, both in Iowa, was three when his house caught on fire. His dad, a volunteer in Lineville, Iowa, was one of the first on the scene. “I made it out, and my three-month-old sister didn’t. When I got older, I thought, ‘You know, I need to give back to my community.’ So, I joined the fire department.”

Many said they were first influenced by a family member — their dad, a grandfather, or uncle. That’s how it went for Matt Lahey, a machine hand at Dubuque Works, in Dubuque, Iowa.

“There weren’t a lot of conversations at the dinner table about it when I was growing up,” said Lahey, who’s been in the Sherrill, Iowa, department for 11 years and is a lieutenant. “I saw pretty early on the kind of impact it can have, and it became more about when can I join instead of dad asking me if I wanted to. I just believe it’s a great way to get involved in your community.”

How to watch the film

Odd Hours is now playing select theaters and will be available to rent or buy on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. Find showtimes and information at OddHoursFilm.com. All proceeds of the film’s sale go to National Volunteer Fire Council and filmmakers.