SUNBURY (AP) — The state of volunteer firefighting is in a crisis.
That is the assessment of Acting Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook and multiple fire officials in the state, nation and Valley.
The current model of volunteer firefighting in Pennsylvania is based on the long-standing tradition going back to the 1700s when Ben Franklin founded the first volunteer department in Philadelphia. That model has continued virtually unchanged since that time, said Cook.
“With the evolution of society, the volunteer fire service is facing several crises,” Cook said. “The financial crisis: the process of selling hoagies no longer generates enough money to buy a vehicle that now costs between $500,000 and $1 million. The second crisis — it is no longer looming. I think we’re actively engaged — is the staff issues across the board. Volunteerism is down.”
The issues are complex. Cook and other fire leaders said they range from aversion to change to societal transformations of the family unit where both spouses are now working to increasing extracurricular activities for children. It means fewer people are coming out to fight fires, which leads to second and third alarms being called not due to the severity of the incident but to the lack of manpower.
The National Volunteer Fire Council reported in 2018 that volunteers comprise 67 percent of firefighters in the United States. Of the total estimated 1,115,000 firefighters across the country, 745,000 are volunteers.
The number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a nearly 40-year low in 2017 with 682,600 but rose again in 2018 with 745,000. At the same time, call volume has tripled in the last 30 years, due in large part to the increase in emergency medical calls, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
In Pennsylvania, the number of firefighters is estimated to be between 36,000 and 38,000. The state does not require fire departments to report the number of volunteers. The number of volunteer firefighters is an estimated 30,000. In 1975, that number was 360,000, according to The National Volunteer Fire Council and the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
“We used to turn out 100 men for a fire, but now it might be down below 10 for a rural fire,” said Cook. “Those are the main issues. How do we get money and how do we get people.”
“It’s an oversimplification of the problem to say that we waited too long,” said Cook. “Society in 2021 is nowhere near comparable to 1760s Philadelphia. It’s a different culture, it’s a different society, but we’re still using the core business model for firefighting. The problem has been hiding in the background as long as I’ve been involved (for 40 years). It’s really come to the forefront in the last 10 to 15 years.”
Under the Fire Commissioner Act, the Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner is the official charged with meeting the “diverse training, operational, and informational needs of the commonwealth’s fire and emergency service community.”
The Office offers assistance, including the development and operation of Pennsylvania’s emergency service training program, the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program (VLAP) that provides low-interest loans to volunteer fire and emergency services organizations, and the state’s fire safety education program. In addition, the commissioner is responsible for the development of a comprehensive fire incident reporting system.
Central to the commissioner’s duties is the cultivation of a close working relationship with Pennsylvania’s 2,400 fire departments and their personnel. The commissioner and his staff function as support and resource personnel for these agencies in dealing with issues such as volunteer recruitment and retention, firefighter safety, intervention programs dealing with juvenile fire-setters, and community safety education.
Cook said the goal is to help fire companies find access to existing funding sources, educate them on what funding sources are available, how to look for grants and low-interest loans.
Time to ‘roll up our sleeves’
Jerry Ozog, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, said there’s been a steady decline over 20 years with a more acute drop in the past five to eight years. Pennsylvania demographics have played a part in the crisis as well.
“We do a great job in Pennsylvania describing the problem,” he said. “We need to roll up our sleeves and start fixing the problem. It won’t come from state government. It will come at the local level redesiging the way we volunteer.”
He added, “As Pennsylvanians get older and populations decline, volunteer firefighters have to become more creative,” he said. “Recruitment has to be constant to keep the levels of membership stable. For volunteer organizations to be successful, they have to focus on people. They have to have a commitment to a county-wide recruitment campaign followed up with local training. That’s the key to success.”
Ozog said there are proven models of recruitment campaigns if you have dedicated leaders and people involved. In the Harrisburg area, Ozog said he was part of a committee that received a $2.2 million grant to conduct a regional recruitment campaign for 20 municipalities with 22 fire departments. It involved training, a marketing campaign and incentives for volunteers meeting their training goals.
“Incentives are common in areas that have the budget to support it, but that doesn’t work for all,” he said. “It’s a challenge in a rural area. If there are a lot of traditional members who do it for 40 years, and then a new generation wants incentives, there might be internal conflict as well. You really have to have leaders who can reimagine fire departments for the future.”
Furthermore, said Ozog, retention is key.
“When members stick around, they are collaborative and stick together. When there’s cliques, chaos or conflict, who wants to volunteer for that?” he said.
The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), a nonprofit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services, provides online training to its members for grant funding, recruitment and retention, safety and equipment, and a number of other topics.
Steve Hirsch, chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, based in Kansas, said small communities can’t wait an hour when their house is on fire or they’re hanging upside down in a car. He said call volume has increased and society has changed.
Recruitment can be a nonstop process, he said.
“There are departments around the nation that don’t have trouble, but there are those that really struggle,” he said.
On the Council’s makemeafirefighter.org, Hirsh said departments can create their own web portal and citizens can look up their local fire departments to see if there is a need for volunteers.
“Once you make people aware of the need, I think people will step up and volunteer,” said Hirsh. “We have to make sure people know we have a need. I refuse to believe that volunteering is a thing of the past. Communities like mine and across the nation, they just don’t have the call volumes to justify more.”
Consolidation and regionalization are “definitely in the toolbox” when looking for potential solutions, said Cook.
“If that geographic area is densely populated, and there’s a high number of call volumes, you can’t approach it from that perspective,” he said.
Ozog said regionalization and consolidation have been successful in Pennsylvania but organizations must want to do it.
“When they don’t, it is not successful,” he said. “It will work if the organizations want it to work. You have to have proactive leadership to challenge the old school traditions and thinking, and have a vision for the future.”
Challenging the model
The National Volunteer Fire Council reported that the time donated by volunteer firefighters saves localities across the country an estimated $46.9 billion per year. The cost of switching to a paid or career firefighting model is not necessarily feasible, fire leaders said.
Ozog said there will be challenges when going against the current model.
“I don’t want to say as a blanket statement that the volunteer model is not sustainable,” he said. “The grit and community spirit will allow it to be sustainable, but the key is excellent leadership and excellent relationship with municipal government.”
In certain communities, including the William Cameron Engine Company in Lewisburg, the transition to a paid fire department has worked, he said.
Hirsh said the dollar figure for a paid service may be preventative.
“You’re talking huge dollars,” he said. “In some communities, it can’t be justified. There are communities in the nation that have issues, but the volunteer model will not change for the majority of the country.”