Volunteer firefighter forces dwindle
By Craig Smith
Published: Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 9:43 p.m.
When the number of active firefighters at the Spring Garden Volunteer Fire Company dropped to four about nine months ago, it left little doubt that time ran out for the small Reserve department.
“We stood alone as long as we could,” said Fire Chief Paul Yuretich.
After 66 years in the community a stone's throw from Pittsburgh's North Side, the department moved its vehicles to nearby Mt. Troy Volunteer Fire Company, whose crews answer Spring Garden calls.
It's a situation playing out across the state and nation because the number of volunteer firefighters has waned. Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Ed Mann calls it “crisis level.”
In 1976, the state had about 300,000 volunteer firefighters; today, there are 50,000, Mann said.
Increasing response times tell the story of the shortage, Mann said. Sometimes, there aren't enough people to man the equipment needed to fight a fire, he said.
The department in his hometown of Lewistown took 18 minutes to get to a recent Dumpster fire. And “it's not getting better,” Mann said.
Root of the problem
Experts say a decline in the public's overall desire to volunteer and increasing employment demands in an unstable economy are primary reasons for the crisis facing volunteer fire departments.
Even resourceful recruiting yields few results.
For five years, Harrison City Volunteer Fire Department appealed for firefighters in 3,400 fundraising mailers, sent twice a year, to people in its Westmoreland County coverage area.
Yet the department added one or two members in that time, said Chief Gene Good.
The rigors of required training played a role in the shortage, Good said.
No longer is it enough for a firefighter to know how to work a nozzle and point it at a house fire.
“A new firefighter who wants to join has to do almost 200 hours of training,” Good said.
Couple that with almost-constant fundraising, work details, fire calls and family demands and that can make even an enthusiastic volunteer feel squeezed.
Just getting by
In North Huntingdon, with seven fire companies, and Penn Township, with five, fire alarms sound at all stations to summon enough people to calls.
“As fire companies look for ways to address their manpower needs ... it's potentially one solution,” said Westmoreland 911 Director Michael Brooker.
Alliances between neighboring departments sprung from the shortage of volunteers.
Three small Hempfield fire companies — Bovard, Luxor and Hannastown — banded together about 10 years ago.
“We saw it coming,” said Bovard Fire Chief Greg Saunders. “We've been watching (the numbers) come down since the 1970s.”
More than anything, officials say, the economy took a toll on firefighting operations.
The loss of large employers and one-breadwinner families means fewer people volunteer because some work multiple jobs.
“We used to have members who worked at Westinghouse. You could support your family, make a living,” said Kevin Hill, president of Westmoreland County Firemen's Association. “They worked second and third shift and could respond (to fire calls). Now people are working two jobs just to make ends meet.”
The association counts about 3,700 members, down from its peak of about 6,000, said Hill.
Of the more than 1.1 million firefighters in the United States in 2012, around 783,300, or 69 percent, were volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Ninety-five percent served communities of fewer than 25,000 people.
The average person doesn't realize what the service would cost if volunteer fire departments were paid, said state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.
“You dial 911, and you expect the equipment to come,” said Baker, who believes most Pennsylvanians aren't aware of the scope of the volunteer problem.
Pennsylvania provides more than $150 million each year to its 2,400 volunteer fire services through grants and loans.
Lawmakers are looking for short- and long-term solutions, including tuition assistance and other retention incentives, Baker said.
A bill introduced by Rep. Matt Baker, R-Bradford/Tioga, would double loan amounts to volunteer departments and ambulance companies under the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program. The House passed the bill and referred it to the Senate on Oct. 30.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, and signed by the governor last year, adds $5 million to help emergency responders pay for equipment, construction, training or debt.
Still, more fire departments may have to consider consolidating, Mann said.
“There's no easy answer. ... There's lots of potential solutions, but how do we pay for it?” he said.
Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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