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Fundraisers business as usual for volunteer fire companies

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Stephanie Marth (left), Halsey Taylor and Darlene Taylor hang up a corn stalk and bow on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Houston, Washington County, in preparation for the annual Pumpkin Festival.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Ribbons are carried to telephone poles along Pike Street on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Houston, Washington County, in preparation for the Pumpkin Festival.

As many as 100,000 people are expected to descend upon the Washington County hamlet of Houston this weekend for the 30th annual Pumpkin Festival — which happens to be the lifeblood of the fire department.

“We live or die by the festival,” said Charles “Buzz” Meddings, 70, president of Houston Volunteer Fire Department. “It's pretty tough for small departments to survive these days.”

Proceeds from the pumpkin festival can reach $70,000 and account for about four of every five dollars in the budget for the department. The company protects a square mile and responds to more than 200 calls per year — many to help neighboring departments and accidents on Interstate 79.

Of the roughly 30,000 fire departments across the country, about 27,000 consist of all or mostly volunteers, according to Philip Stittleburg, chief of the LaFarge, Wis., fire department and chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Those volunteers provide about $130 billion in services for free each year, not counting their fundraising efforts, he said. Stittleburg estimated that most volunteer departments secure as much as 50 percent of their budgets through fundraisers.

“We have invented every method of funding fire services possible under human ingenuity,” he said.

Fundraising events can range from letter campaigns and weekend boot drives at busy intersections to fish fries and raffles of cash, appliances and firearms.

The most recent state report counted 2,354 volunteer fire departments in Pennsylvania, accounting for 96 percent of all fire departments. The majority are in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, which had 322 volunteer fire departments combined.

The seven-county Pittsburgh region has 538 departments, including 50 in Washington County.

“We're never out of the business of receiving funds,” said Phillip Fleming, treasure and founding member of Ligonier Valley Fire Companies.

The charitable organization raises money for four volunteer fire companies around Ligonier — Darlington Station No. 42, Ligonier Station No. 43, Waterford Station No. 44 and Wilpen Station No. 45. In September, the four departments split $118,000 raised through an annual mail campaign. More funds will be distributed in February.

Ligonier Valley prefers the direct mail approach over festivals, food events and other types of fundraisers due to the man-hours required, Fleming said.

“But I think you will find if you are trying to operate a volunteer fire department, you have to do fundraising of some sort. For a sustainable base of operation, you need the support of your community.”

Chief Robert Goeltz, head of the Hermitage Fire Department, said his outfit is different from many. Part of his budget comes from the local tax base and helps pay for four full-time firefighters. His department includes more than 30 volunteers. Together, they respond to more than 1,000 calls each year.

Two volunteer fundraisers bring in more than $100,000 annually and account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the department's budget, Goeltz said.

One of those fundraisers is the annual steak fry dinner and auction, which traditionally has included firearms and has grown to include home appliances such as microwaves and televisions.

“The fundraising is extremely important,” Goeltz said. “But fundraising gets more difficult each year.”

Meddings of the Houston Volunteer Fire Department shares that sentiment, especially considering how Western Pennsylvania's fall weather can play a role in the pumpkin festival's success.

But the show goes on, rain or shine, said Meddings, one of five generations of family members involved with the department founded in 1925.

“Without a doubt, we absolutely need that money to make this fire department thrive,” Meddings said. “The community could not afford the department otherwise.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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