Fire departments merge to combat lack of volunteers

June 3, 2016

Fire departments merge to combat lack of volunteers

Statewide, Pennsylvania volunteer firefighter numbers have fallen 80 percent in the past 40 years


By Kate Malongowski
The Beaver County Times

ROCHESTER, Pa. — In any emergency, a quick response is paramount.

But Ed Hermick Jr., the Rochester Fire Department’s assistant chief, who was formerly the chief in Rochester Borough, knows the difficulties in rounding up volunteer firefighters all too well.

“At one time, we had two engines and a ladder truck down here. We’d load up all three trucks on a call. In more recent years, we were struggling for manpower,” he said. “We weren’t getting very much young blood in here.”

Down the road, Mike Mamone Jr., former fire chief in Rochester Township, faced a similar issue. Most of his firefighters were young, and the department lacked more-experienced volunteers to assist with equipment and drive trucks.

Combining resources just seemed to make sense between the Rochester borough and township fire departments.

Their merger into becoming Rochester Fire Department Station 23, using the borough’s name and the township’s number, became official in August. They were also able to sell one of their trucks because of the increased efficiency.

“It’s probably been the best thing we’ve ever done as far as manpower goes,” said Mamone, who is fire chief of the combined department. “We have 42 guys in our station now.”

Manpower is a struggle at many fire stations, since the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has dwindled by more than 80 percent over the past 40 plus years.

“Back in the ’70s, we had 300,000 volunteers. We’re down to roughly 50,000 now,” said Tim Solobay, Pennsylvania fire commissioner and former Washington County state senator. “It’s had a major impact on departments and how they operate and how they run. It’s expanded the need for more mutual aid. It’s made folks look for different ways of trying to recruit, just find out why we don’t have folks wanting to volunteer anymore.”

The reasons behind the falling number of volunteers is multifaceted, Solobay said. The job itself is more demanding, more training is required by fire departments and more people work outside the community where they live.

Minimal firefighter training is mandated by the state, he said, but fire departments often require much more.

There’s also a major economic shift in families that limits volunteering, Beaver County Emergency Services Director Wes Hill said.

“Yesteryear … there were a lot of families where they were fortunate enough to just have the one member or the one parent have to work and could support the family and still had a lot of time to volunteer in departments,” Hill said. “Today, with just the way economics are, financially, it almost takes both parents to work, to raise a family.”

Solobay said there’s another reason fewer people are willing: Being a volunteer requires a lot more fundraising than it does firefighting.

“Probably the No. 1 reason it’s become very difficult, I think, to get and retain volunteers is they join the department to do something good for their community,” he said. “But it has become such a mandate of fundraising that 90 percent of the time that an individual puts in, in many cases in a fire department, is to raise the money to be able to have the materials, the equipment, the stuff to do what they’re doing for free for their community.”

Costs add up quickly. A new firetruck could cost between $500,000 and $1 million. And the majority of funding comes from local government.

According to a study from the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, local and state governments save about $6 billion a year by having volunteer firefighters.

The role of a firefighter has changed in other ways, too. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments nationwide responded to more than four times as many medical calls in 2013 than they did in 1980, from 5 million to 21.3 million calls.

At the same time, the number of fire calls departments respond to in the same time period has decreased by nearly two-thirds, from 3 million calls in 1980 to 1.2 million calls in 2013 nationwide.

Although there are various local and state incentives for volunteers, from scholarships to tax breaks, and other pending legislative bills that could help with recruitment, Solobay said it’s not an issue that will go away anytime soon.

“I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes throwing money at something isn’t always the saving grace, but it sure does help those that are out there doing it right now,” Solobay said.

Another sign that firefighters are older: Last year, nine out of the 10 line-of-duty deaths in Pennsylvania were due to medical conditions brought on by the stress of the job.

“That shows our aging population of volunteers,” Solobay said.

The average age of firefighters in Pennsylvania is around 45 years old.

Hill said he believes increasing efficiency the way Rochester did is a key in combating the volunteer shortage. With only three paid fire departments in Beaver County — Aliquippa, Ambridge and Beaver Falls — most local communities rely solely on volunteers.

“You’ve got to combine your forces. And that’s an issue that has to be brought more in front of the local elected officials,” Hill said.

Combined efforts can be done on a smaller scale, too.

For instance, the Aliquippa, Center Township, Hopewell Township, Monaca and Potter Township fire departments are training together for the first time this year to save money and increase the number of training classes available to firefighters. Each department chipped in $1,000 to purchase a training program from Bucks County Community College’s public safety program, said Mike Siegel, assistant fire chief at Monaca Fire Department Station 57.

More than 100 hours of training are stretched out from March to November. Medical, CPR and hazmat training is required before a volunteer can be Firefighter 1 certified, which provides clearance to go out on calls and fight fires.

The time spent before officially becoming a volunteer can act as a deterrent, too, said Angelette Holtman, a Beaver Falls firefighter and secretary with the Beaver County Firefighters Association.

“To turn around to someone who walks in and says, ‘I’d love to help,’ well, we need 200 hours of your time first before you can jump on the truck and play. That’s what we’re up against,” Holtman said.

And training is expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per firefighter. Grants and fire departments sometimes cover the cost, but for some, it’s on the firefighter themselves to pay for their certification training, Holtman said.

Siegel said that a few years ago, the fire department paid about $2,000 for a few classes. By having partners in training, they’re bringing in more qualified trainers to provide more certifications for firefighters and more opportunities for them to learn.

“Maybe they do something a little different than we do,” Siegel said. “Maybe they do something better.”

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(c)2016 the Beaver County Times