Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Local fire officials are looking for ways to increase the number of volunteer firefighters.

Leaders with the Tuolumne County Fire Department are working on a plan they hope will increase the number of people willing to volunteer, which have dwindled statewide since the 1970s. Multiple leaders with the department presented aspects of that plan to the county Board of Supervisors this week.

"It's critical for any rural and some city departments to have a strong and well-trained volunteer force," said Steve Lawshe, division chief with Cal Fire, which contracts out for the county department.

Since the 1970s, local volunteer numbers have declined from hundreds to dozens, with about 70 counted at a low point in 2010, according to a report from the same year on local fire services. Lawshe pointed to a number of reasons for the decline, including communication and recognition issues between paid staff and volunteers, and overall changes in the economy.

"A lot of community-based volunteers can close up the hardware store" and go to calls, he said. "Nowadays, you've got to make every sale that you can."

According to the county fire department, other issues affecting volunteer numbers include increased time and training requirements, volunteers being under-used for emergency calls and lack of recruitment efforts.

The plan will include recruitment strategies like increased media exposure, recruiting videos and brochures, increased interaction with civic groups and more emphasis on finding students and individuals looking to get experience for a firefighting career.

Retention strategies will include more communication between paid officers and volunteers, recognition and incentives, and more flexible and increased training opportunities.

The plan is being adopted with input from paid and volunteer firefighters in the county department. Though there is not a specific number goal, Lawshe said success will come with improvements in the numbers.

The department needs to "offer these folks every opportunity to succeed and improve upon where they're going," he said.