Volunteer fire services on life support

When I joined the fire service in 1969, the last thing on any department’s agenda was recruitment and retention.

In fact, a few years after I joined, my department closed its charter because we had so many members. Times were different then.

The local economy was booming. You could graduate one day and have a job in the mines, steel mills or railroad the next day.

Today, things are different. The most important item on every volunteer fire department’s list is recruiting and retention and for good reason. Over the past 40 years the volunteer fire service in Pennsylvania has shrunk by 75%.

Every week, you hear about fire departments that are merging or closing because they simply don’t have enough volunteers to answer alarms.

In addition, the age of our firefighters is increasing. Over the past 30 years, the number of firefighters over age 50 answering alarms has increased from 15% to 32%, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

At the same time, call volume has tripled. Major factors contributing to recruitment challenges include increased time demands, more rigorous training requirements and the increase in two-income families whose members do not have time to volunteer.

Fire departments today are also expected to provide a wider range of services and multi-hazard response.

Last week, a single-family residential structure fire broke out in Tyrone about noon. It took 14 volunteer fire companies to bring the blaze under control.

When interviewed, Austin Lynn, chief of the Blazing Arrow Hook & Ladder, said, “The large number of volunteer departments that responded was indicative of a daytime fire because many departments have trouble getting more than a few members to respond.”

Over the years, the public has simply called 911 and someone showed up to handle their emergency. Our ability to depend on this type of response is at a critical juncture because of the membership issues facing volunteer departments.

The Pennsylvania Legislature authorized a study of the volunteer fire service in the Commonwealth.

The study referred to as SR6 was completed and contains several recommendations for addressing the volunteer fire service crisis.

During the 2019 legislative session, several of these recommendations were crafted into legislation and passed by the House of Representatives. This legislation included bills which address tax credits for volunteers, expansion of the fire department loan program, length of service award programs and tuition assistance.

Some of this legislation — like Rep. James Struzzi’s tuition assistance program — passed the House unanimously. In today’s partisan political world, that is unheard of, but is indicative of the critical nature of this situation.

The bills that were passed last session by the House of Representatives now sit in various committees of the state Senate.

The senators are back in session on Jan. 27. I am imploring you to contact your state senator and ask them to support legislation recommended by SR6 that now sits in their chamber. Passing this legislation will be the crucial first step needed to address the volunteer crises in our state.

I will leave you with one final statistic. In 1970, occupants had about 17 minutes to escape a burning home before being overcome by heat and smoke. Today the estimate is three minutes. Obviously, the window of opportunity for survival has decreased tremendously. Please call or email your senator today.

The life you save may be your own.

Brant serves on the board of directors at the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Safety Institute. He has 50 years of experience as a chief officer and volunteer with the Hope Fire Company of Northern Cambria and the Patton Fire Company No. 1.