DWINDLING numbers and an ageing volunteer workforce are just two of the many challenges facing the NSW Rural Fire Service.
Like many volunteer organisations, the RFS has been relying more and more on retirees to bolster the service.
Clarence Valley District Manager Superintendent Stuart Watts said participation rates had been in decline over the past 10 years.
"Our volunteers reflect what is happening in the greater community and, while we certainly welcome retirees and rely heavily on their good work, we are seeing fewer young people join than in previous years," he said.
He said this trend and many other factors contributed to the general decline in volunteer numbers, and all had an effect on recruitment strategies.
"I think the sense of community is probably not as obvious these days and people are generally busier working and raising families," he said.
"Young people are leaving the area for work - all these factors impact on recruitmentstrategies."
Supt Watts said he had nothing but praise for RFS volunteers, who were a dedicated bunch of contributors.
"They do a very dangerous and stressful job and we try to look after them," he said.
Supt Watts began his career as a volunteer with NSW Rural Fire Service at just 16 years old and says he still believes the RFS is a great place to make a mean- ingful contribution to the local community, with plenty of options available for people to gain new skills.
"We're looking for people who can give a little time to RFS and help make their community a safer place," he said.
With a variety of roles on offer, from emergency fire fighting to hazard reduction, communication, admin, aviation and catering, Supt Watts said the goal was to find a best fit for people's skills and interests.
"The doors of the RFS are always open to new volunteers," he said.
The NSW Rural Fire Service has recently become more active in recruiting younger volunteers and has introduced a school-based cadet program giving young people the opportunity to train in basic fire fighting and first aid.
Now in its third year, about 80 students from South Grafton High and Clarence Valley Anglican School have taken part in this year's program.
Lawrence RFS Captain Neil Thompson has been conducting the training and says it is a winning situation all round.
"The kids have been as keen as mustard," he said. "When you treat them like adults and give them some responsibility and respect, they really step up."
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