ST. JOSEPH — As the nation’s volunteer firefighters age and there are fewer new recruits to fill the void, fire departments are struggling to keep their numbers up.

St. Joseph Township is no exception, said Ryan Klaer, chief at the fire department’s Station 1. 

“We’re not unique. We’re all fighting for the same pool of people. It takes a unique individual to want to do this. So we’re thinking let’s try to get them at a younger age,” Klaer told the St. Joseph Township Board at its noon workshop Monday. 

With that, Klaer presented his plan for a Fire Department Cadet Program he hopes to launch Nov. 1. The program received a nod of support from trustees, who approved it at their evening meeting Monday.

Klaer said in Michigan, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined 5 percent since the 1980s while the number of calls has increased 30 percent. He said that last year, the average age of firefighters at St. Joseph Township’s Station 1 was 60. The average age this year is 55.

Klaer said part of the problem is the training requirements. To become certified, a firefighter has to receive 295 hours of instruction, and must attend training every weekend for about eight months. The cadet program will draw from high school students in Career Technical Education programs who are already getting that instruction and will graduate high school with firefighter certification. 

“The goal is to gain interest at a young age and use the high school program to obtain certification,” Klaer told the township board. Cadets must be at least 16 years old, will gradually be allowed to respond to calls and will not be allowed in “hot” zones until fully certified. 

They will not be allowed to respond to fire calls during school hours or after 10 p.m. on school nights. 

Klaer said he has two candidates waiting to enter the program, and will accept up to eight. He said the cadets should be eligible to apply for full membership with the department at age 18. Cadets will be compensated at a rate of $13 per hour for certain duties and/or trainings.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa