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Firefighters find outpouring of support ebbing

| Thursday, March 7, 2002

Six months after Sept. 11 brought an outpouring of support for firefighters, local volunteer companies are struggling with a lack of money and manpower.

The wave of support has stopped short of supplying more local donations or volunteers.

"We haven't had any new people join. We didn't get a single phone call," said David Hoburg, chief of North Hampton Volunteer Fire Company.

Heroic stories of fallen New York City firefighters captured public attention and brought recognition to firefighters across the country.

With that recognition came a wave of hope that the public would respond with more time and money.

For many volunteer fire departments in the Pittsburgh region, that hope was unfounded.

"I was disappointed with not getting any phone calls at all. I truly thought we would get a few people," Hoburg said.

A recruitment drive one month after the terrorist attacks turned up empty. North Hampton has 18 active firefighters who handle about 35 calls each month, Hoburg said.

Last year, the volunteer company responded to 422 calls.

"This is a terrible burden," Hoburg said. "If 400 times a year, you leave either work or your family in the middle of something, it takes a toll."

In his 25 years as a Hampton firefighter, Hoburg has seen the number of volunteers cut in half while the volume of calls has quadrupled.

Twenty years ago, the company had about 45 active volunteers and an average of 100 calls annually.

A lack of new volunteers is placing a strain on older volunteers. The average age of a firefighter in North Hampton is around 40, Hoburg said.

As volunteers age, Hampton Township could be forced to hire professional firefighters, Hoburg said.

"In 10 years or less, the township will have to go with some paid firefighters," Hoburg said.

In Marshall Township, development has prompted the need for more firefighters.

"The number of calls keeps growing as the township grows," said firefighter Rich Studebaker.

Last year, the Marshall Volunteer Fire Company responded to 387 calls. The company has about 30 active firefighters.

For many local volunteers, firefighting is in their blood.

Studebaker and his two brothers are following in the footsteps of their father, who has been a volunteer firefighter for decades.

Studebaker said the risks and training involved keep some people at from joining.

In Pennsylvania, volunteers are required to take an 88-hour basic firefighting course.

Individual departments vary in the amount of additional training required. Many hold weekly training sessions.

Local departments also call on volunteers to fill auxiliary roles. The number of those volunteers also has dropped dramatically.

"We can use people on the board of directors, treasurer, secretary," Studebaker said. "There are a lot more things that need done than people realize."

Firefighters say time spent fund raising also can be draining.

The Mars Volunteer Fire Company conducts several annual fund-raising events, including a carnival and fish fry.

Mark Reighard, Mars fire chief, said he was hopeful the events of Sept. 11 would prompt local officials to spend more money on fire protection.

Donations from local municipalities have not increased.

The fire company receives about half of its $70,000 operating budget from municipal contributions. Mars, Seven Fields and Adams Township make annual donations.

"We had hoped that they would have seen a need to donate more. There's a lot of disappointment," Reighard said.

The past six months have brought disappointment in South Strabane Township.

"We thought that it would make a difference," said Scott R. Reese, South Strabane Township fire chief. "We thought we would see an influx of people wanting to be involved. We thought our rosters would take a jump, but it didn't happen."

That sentiment is echoed to the east in the borough of Plum.

"The interest in volunteering has gone up, but the number of people taking the application and actually volunteering has not gone up," said Jim Reynolds, a member of the Holiday Park Volunteer Fire Department.

"After Sept. 11, there were a lot of people who went out of their way to thank us and say how terrible it was that all of those firefighters lost their lives, but over time that has faded away," Reighard said. "We don't go on 10,000 calls like those guys in New York, but every fire is the same risk."

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