The number of volunteer firefighters has been on a long, steady decline, as fewer people have time to devote to training, fundraising and fire calls, according to local fire officials.
Local officials also say they fear for the future if volunteer departments do not get more support.
“The reality is, this system is broken,” said Steve Bair, fire director for Alpha Fire Company and the Centre Region Council of Governments. “The train is off the tracks and people are headed for a real mess.”
There are very few paid firefighters in Pennsylvania, and only in urban centers. This leaves the bulk of responsibility to volunteers for fighting fires, securing vehicle accidents and other scenes for safety, and rescuing people from crashed cars, planes, collapsed structures, natural disasters and just about every other emergency imaginable. On top of that, they are constantly engaged in fundraising in order to keep the lights on.
The lives of citizens are in the hands of an ever-shrinking pool of fellow citizen volunteers, who spend much of their time training and trying to raise funds to maintain and purchase gear to make for a safer community.
STRAINS ON LOCAL DEPARTMENTS
In Philipsburg, Chief Jeff Harris oversees two stations: Hope and Reliance.
He said there has been a major decline in the number of active volunteer firefighters there. Only about one out of every five junior firefighters will stay on as adults.
One of the biggest strains for the two stations is money, where the junior firefighters could do the most good, but the responsibility often falls onto the older, more experienced members who not only have the skill and expertise to fight fires, but are also giving up entire days to raise funds, he said.
Philipsburg firefighters used to hold bingo events, Harris said, but people in the area no longer have the money to play. Fire department bingo is also competing with an ever-expanding gambling industry.
The Phillipsburg fire department’s biggest source of income now is a truck raffle, which is going on now. On Saturday, Sept. 9, the department will give away a new 2017 Chevy Silverado.
Recently, the pressure was turned up even more on Philipsburg firefighters — they have to make payments on a new fire truck. Well, new to Philipsburg.
Their 2006 Seagrave pumper is replacing a 1997 Seagrave. A piece of equipment like that comes with a price tag of about $250,000. They will get some help from local municipalities for payments, Harris said.
BEFORE AND NOW
There are 20 to 25 active firefighters in Philipsburg. Harris contrasted that with when he was a younger man fighting fires some 30 years ago.
“There were times you would go to a fire call and you couldn’t get on the truck because there was so many people,” he said. “You would just sit back and wait.”
He said the two stations for the last couple of years have been considering a merger to help save on building and other overhead costs, but they have not yet come to a consensus.
A 2013 report from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania showed 28 percent of rural fire departments have discussed consolidation or have already merged in the last two years, regardless of the size of the departments.
The Port Matilda Fire Company’s volunteer numbers also have gone down over the past 10 years, assistant chief Butch Rudy said. From 42 a decade ago, the company’s volunteers have dropped by almost half. The 22 volunteers Port Matilda has left deal with the pressures of modern-day living while trying to help their community.
“It all depends on the time of day,” Rudy said of how difficult it is for volunteers to get to the station. “Both members of the family have to work now and the training takes a toll on volunteers, too.”
The need to balance work and family life with a commitment to fighting fires is tougher than it used to be, Rudy added.
It is mostly a hit-or-miss situation. Weekend plans and weekdays at work strain a volunteer’s abilities to help.
Budget constraints do not help either. Rudy said fundraisers are a big part of keeping the fire company operating. They help raise money, but, he said, they also bring in volunteers by recruiting right there at the same time.
Overall in Pennsylvania, there has been little net change in the number of firefighters in recent years, according to a report from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania based on mailed questionnaires sent in 2012.
In 2001, survey data showed 18.2 firefighters on average regularly responded to calls, compared to 16.8 in 2012.
But looking back further, in 1976 there were 300,000 firefighters in Pennsylvania compared to 50,000 in 2012, according to the magazine Fire Engineering.
AT ALPHA FIRE COMPANY
Over at Alpha Fire Company in State College, they have far more active firefighters, with 105, Bair said.
But Bair also pointed out the company is serving far more people, and in terms of percentage of population, they are actually lagging behind.
But Alpha does have a major advantage over other Centre County fire departments: Members do not have to spend time fundraising.
“We are very fortunate that we have communities that value a robust fire department,” Bair said. “In exchange, we work very diligently to make sure we are a good value for our customer and we are running this place as efficiently as possible.”
Every other year Alpha does send out a mailer to solicit for funds, with about an 11 percent return. That goes toward paying for scholarships to high school and college students, as well as creature comforts such as TVs in the fire station.
Alpha is an example of a regional fire company, covering 4 1/2 municipalities with three stations: one each in State College Borough and Patton and College townships.
But, Bair has spent his fair share of time fundraising. He started in Paxton Township in the Harrisburg area in 1975, where he ran bingo games every Friday. He then moved to Amherst, N.H., for his job and was a paid on-call firefighter. He moved to State College 10 years ago.
Bair echoed what many others have said about the declining number of volunteers in firefighting and emergency medical services when talking about sense of community. He said growing up, his sense of community was his immediate surroundings — those same surroundings that a volunteer firefighter would help to protect. Now, he said, people identify with communities in terms of shared interests, not geography.
He also agreed that overall the amount of time spent fundraising drives people away from volunteering. He said the shift to two-income households has made it difficult for people to find the time, among other factors.
There is also the fact of a decades-long decline in middle-class, blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing and mining. People are then less likely to be employed in the more rural municipalities, Bair said, so they are not near their home fire stations when calls goes out.
His recommendation is that municipalities and local communities put money into their fire departments while they still can, before it is too late. He said either more money will be put into the firefighting system, or losses to fire damage will increase, driving up insurance premiums.
Increased time spent fundraising, along with time training, also precludes fire departments from some of the goodwill community efforts that endear them to the local population when the department is asking for funds.
“It’s a shame. It takes a terrible toll on our system,” Bair said.
It could become tricky if fire departments have to move toward a model of part-time paid positions, he said, which might become more common in the future if volunteer numbers stay at their current trajectory.
NOTHING IS FREE
Long gone are the days where elected officials did not have to worry about the health of their local volunteer fire departments, Bair said. Many communities have enjoyed a free lunch for decades. Those days are gone forever, and Bair said we are “just headed for a real mess.”
Harris said nearly the same thing: “Nothing is for free anymore.”
Fire departments provide the community with an obvious service: They keep people alive and safe during emergencies.
But further, they help to keep down monetary losses to fire damage.
Data with the Office of the State Fire Commissioner shows $73,973,048 in losses to fires in 2016 and $17,527,427 in losses through May 2017. The largest contributing category is residential, with industry second and public structures third.
Bair said those numbers will continue to grow as the firefighting system suffers from lack of funding and volunteers.
Those numbers are not comparable to previous years, as the reporting system has recently changed and more fire departments are reporting losses, said Kraig Herman, public education specialist at OSFC.
The volunteer system in the state saves taxpayers about $6 billion, according to a 2005 report from the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.