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The firefighters' crunch: Time for action

| Thursday, July 14, 2005

The number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has plummeted from 300,000 in 1976 to 72,000 today.

The consequences are concrete. Fire companies often are getting to the scene later than they should and with too few firefighters. Infrequently, they don't get there at all.

Pennsylvania has the most volunteer fire companies in the nation. Allegheny and Westmoreland counties are No. 1 and No. 2 in the state, with 196 and 126 companies, respectively.

This growing crisis has been a long time in coming. The economic and social milieu in which the volunteer firefighting system emerged is disappearing.

Is there a solution to be had before a crisis becomes catastrophic• Shall we have mergers and small groups of paid firefighters (especially during the daytime) who work with volunteers• Shall departments provide room and board to unmarrieds who volunteer and/or provide health insurance and pension plans• Would tax breaks and tuition credits attract interest?

Such incentives may require public money -- taxes -- as so many fire companies barely get by now on donations and small government grants.

Basic public safety is first a local concern. But lack of leadership on the local level invites state intervention, God forbid.

Community is a concept in extremis. It need not remain so.

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