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Whither The Volunteer Firefighter In PA?

Rohrerstown Fire Department, Lancaster County

Pennsylvania has just over 1,800 registered fire departments.

Nearly all – 98.6 percent to be exact – are registered volunteer or mostly volunteer departments with the Keystone State ranking third in the country behind Delaware and Minnesota.

Those who volunteer with their local companies in their local communities are heroes in almost every sense of the word. They do it because they want to. They respond to the need to volunteer for their community.

But how long can the Commonwealth depend on the goodwill of its citizens for this service?

State Sen. Frank Farry (R-Bucks) says likely not much longer.

And when the numbers decrease, Pennsylvania residents will have to pony up for fire protection in a similar fashion to other civic services.

Farry has been a volunteer firefighter for 33 years, including the last 22 years as chief of the Langhorne-Middletown Fire Company in Bucks County since 2001.

His experience tells him and others that the challenges that face his department and others are mounting and as fewer people step up to help, new solutions will need to be found.

Since the 1970s, the ranks of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania have dropped from 360,000 to fewer than 37,000.

“When you have higher call volume and fewer people responding, the demands get greater,” Farry told the Erie News-Times. “We have bills that need to be paid. We have equipment that needs to be maintained. We have personnel issues. We have policies and procedures that need to be developed. We are really running a small business, and it requires a 24/7 state of readiness.”

State Sen. Michele Brooks (R-Crawford/Lawrence/Mercer) has brought forth legislation (SB 114) that could assist, awarding three grants of $150,000 apiece, which would be distributed to three community colleges or PASSHE schools in the Commonwealth. The grants will be used to establish fire training programs for students in high school during the school year, with the hope they will remain firefighters for years to come.

The bill passed the Senate but languishes in the House’s Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

If numbers continue to fall, volunteer fire departments will eventually have to ask themselves what they can do safely with limited manpower. Some have already may the decision to merge or regionalize.

Last year, Pottstown’s Goodwill and Empire Hook and Ladder fire companies consolidated into a single entity. Earlier this year, the merger of Steel City Volunteer Fire Company with Lower Saucon Fire Rescue became official, bringing to a close a 10-year period where there were four independent fire companies based in Lower Saucon Township.

“Ultimately, what’s going to happen is when we, the volunteers, go the way of the dinosaur, there’s going to be significant property tax increases,” said Farry. “I’m not saying the volunteer fire service will completely go away. It’s (a question of): ‘Will the volunteer fire service be able to continue to provide adequate fire protection?’ If we don’t start getting some people in the door, that’s going to be reality.”

More than a third of volunteers in small communities were over the age of 50 in 2020, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That compares to 1987, when only 15.9% were older than 50.

People may find themselves waiting “45 minutes for a fire truck to show up when their house is on fire,” said Steve Hirsch, head of the National Volunteer Fire Council, or they may be stuck for more than half an hour during a medical emergency when every second counts.

“People have to understand that if they don’t go out and volunteer, that could happen,” said Hirsch.

Farry said it will take a well-coordinated effort to avoid the billions of dollars in funding that it would take to operate a cadre of paid fire departments across Pennsylvania.

“It’s incumbent of government at all levels — federal, state, and local — to stave that off for as long as we can,” he said. “It’s community dependent. It depends on what support we get from the community. It depends on what additional burdens are put on us. It depends on the core of your folks and who you have and utilizing them. Right now, we’re like literally at the point where we can’t bleed any more firefighters.”

3 Responses

  1. The problem is that we live in a society that wants everything but doesn’t want to give up anything in return. I’ve been a volunteer for almost 39 years, while for 22 years serving on a career department and working at least one part-time job during that time as well. I managed to make trainings and a good share of alarms. I also went to my kid’s ballgames, including being an assistant coach on several teams. I laugh at those who say they can’t give up the time to go to training a couple times a month because of ballgames. My point is that much of the problem is societal. I think the answer is to find a way to properly motivate young people, but I think we are all just struggling to find that solution right now.

  2. A great deal can be done with consolidation in densely populated suburban areas where you can’t even tell when you’ve left one town and arrived at another. One borough of 800 people right next door to another small town with 1,200 people right next to a larger town with 8,000 people really have no need to each maintain their own fire departments, except pride and tradition and the concept of serving only the community you live in. Rural areas with miles between them do have a bigger problem, but not these small “self-rule” towns piled on top of one another where every fire department in the immediate area responds to every fire anyway. .

  3. Instead of Republicans giving grant money to encourage more volunteer fireman why not pay them? Yes, nobody wants higher taxes but if there are not enough volunteer fireman something must be done.


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