New law hopes to boost number of volunteer firefighters around the country

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Volunteer fire departments around the country, including many in Missouri, desperately need some new recruits. More than 200 communities in the state are served by volunteer firefighters.

Now, there's new proposed federal legislation that is aiming to help.

Inter City Fire and EMS covers just a single square mile between Independence and Kansas City, but its crews keep busy.

"We have over 23,000 people passing in the morning on just one road.  So you can see the potentials for accidents and stuff," said Inter City Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Jewell.

Jewell's been Inter City's chief for 17 years. He says one thing's consistently gotten harder ever year.

"And it's not just here. It's all over. Seventy percent of the United States is made up of volunteer fire departments," said Jewell.

Although Inter City EMTs and paramedics are paid per call; firefighters are volunteers. Finding people to step up and give their time for free isn't easy.

"If you don't have people to answer that call, who is going to come to their aid?" Jewell said.

To help address the critical shortage, three U.S. Senators, including Missouri's own Claire McCaskill, are proposing a new law. It would make volunteer firefighters eligible for federal student loan forgiveness. It's a benefit that is already extended to many federal and nonprofit employees after 10 years of service.

"Honestly as much as school loans are, volunteering just a little bit here and there just to help pay for some of those loans, I see that as being real beneficial," said Inter City EMT Kolton Roschevitz.

Roschevitz is just 20 years old and has only been working at Inter City five months. He thinks a lot of people his age aren't interested in becoming first responders because of the pay and tough hours.

He loves the challenges each day brings and having an opportunity to serve the community.

"It definitely is an adrenaline rush when you're going lights and sirens down the road and you pull up on scene and you actually make a difference in someone's life when they're having a bad day," said Roschevitz.

Chief Jewell says young recruits like Roschevitz benefit more than just small departments like Inter City. Student loan forgiveness could help draw the best and brightest to consider volunteering and to keep them long enough to get trained, then move on to paying positions at bigger departments.

"The ultimate goal is to provide the best service for the public," Chief Jewell said.

With the average age of volunteer firefighters at a third of the country's departments over 50, the need to get new, young recruits to serve will only continue as those men and women retire.