Volunteer firefighters hard to find in Mt. Pleasant, Scottdale
Some local fire companies are studying what can be done to stop the decline in membership that has been experienced during the past several years.
Gerald Lucia, chief of the Mt. Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department, said his department is looking at what kind of incentives can be offered to attract more members.
There are 38 active firemen in the borough's volunteer department. Six are junior firemen who cannot respond to fires, and 20 have enough time in to quit and retain lifetime membership.
If those 20 individuals were to quit today, there would be just 12 active firemen available with the department.
In neighboring Scottdale Borough, there are 79 firemen on the books with the Scottdale Volunteer Fire Department, with just 31 of those considered active.
Ten of those are retired firemen who still run calls, and six are junior firemen.
“We have definitely seen a decrease in people interested in the fire service,” said Scottdale Fire Chief Buzz Myers. “We have lost more firemen than we have acquired in recent years.”
Lucia believes there are three main factors that are contributing to the lack of volunteers joining fire departments.
First, in most families, both the wife and husband work full-time jobs, which leaves no one to watch the children when the fire whistle goes off.
“When I got in 39 years ago, we had one child at the time, and we were lucky enough to have neighbors who would turn on their porch light when they heard the whistle go off, expecting me to drop the kids off to them,” Lucia said.
Second, there are now many requirements for firefighters that are mandated by the state.
“We're really trying to bring in junior firemen or young men who have no marriage commitments at this point,” Lucia said.
Third factor is fundraising. That that's the biggest detriment, says Lucia. Myers agrees.
“Most of the problems we experience within the department are caused by fundraising and all the work it takes to raise enough money to keep the doors open,” Myers said. “If we could just answer calls, it would be a lot easier to get and retain firefighters.
“It would also allow us to spend more time training, which would further enhance safety and operational effectiveness, but instead of training, we are often out trying to raise money,” he said.
Myers said staffing and funding shortages are problems being discussed at the national, state and local levels, but changes seem to occur slowly or not at all.
Bob Topper, New Haven Hose fire chief, said his department's numbers are steady. But he agreed, volunteer fire departments are all contending with funding issues.
“We're very lucky that the city uses some of their CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) money to help purchase equipment,” he said. “Right now, we have the best equipment you can buy.”
But funding for most fire departments isn't as readily available.
“It's an impossible task to ask someone to join and risk their life for no pay, and then ask them to take hours of training, answer fire calls and participate in several fundraisers a year,” Topper said. “Especially when your wife expects things to get done around the house and you still have a regular job that you're accountable for.
“It's just too much for some guys,” he added.
Rachel Basinger is a contributing writer.