Volunteer fire departments 'in dire straits'
Nearly every municipality in York County relies almost solely on volunteer firefighters to protect the lives and property of its residents.
And that worries local fire officials who find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain men and women willing to provide that crucial service — and the more mundane duties necessary to pay the departments' bills.
“Volunteer fire service is dying quickly,” said Chief Tony Myers, a 30-year veteran of the Shrewsbury Volunteer Fire Co.
“We’re in dire straits,” agreed Brian Widmayer, deputy chief of the Dover Township Volunteer Fire Department.
York County isn't unique; communities across Pennsylvania are reporting the same problems, according to state Fire Commissioner Tim Solobay.
Authorities estimate about 50,000 to 70,000 volunteer firefighters are active around the state, down from a high of 300,000 in 1976.
It’s hard to pin down exactly how many volunteer firefighters there are in York County. When asked about their volunteer staffs, chiefs give ranges, estimates along the lines of “30 to 35,” “around 50” or “about 15,” as members fade in and out as their lives allow.
There’s also no central organization that keeps count.
York County has about 4,000 pagers in circulation for volunteer emergency personnel, a category that includes firefighters, fire police, medical responders, hazardous material crews and the like, according to county spokesman Carl Lindquist.
Some of those pagers are likely backups, so the number of volunteer emergency personnel for the county is probably lower than that, he said.
Local fire chiefs cite several reasons why fewer people are willing to don the turnout gear: Maybe it’s a decline in community spirit; maybe it’s the long and time-consuming training required; or maybe it’s because so few people actually work in the same community where they live.
“I think the biggest reason is the economy,” said Myers, the chief in Shrewsbury. “It’s harder for a married couple to survive now … volunteerism takes a bit of a back seat.”
Family dynamics are different. It’s no longer the norm for the dad to be the only one working — and then doing other things such as volunteering for the fire department — while mom takes care of everything at home. These days, often both parents in a two-parent family are working.
“Circumstances have changed over the years,” Myers said.
And similarly, people don't want to spend as much time fundraising as often as is necessary, according to Solobay, the state fire commissioner. Firefighters often have to give up several nights and weekend days a month to work a bingo night or a barbecue to raise money for the department.
That burns people out, he said.
"I didn't join to be a professional fundraiser," said Solobay, who's been a firefighter for almost 40 years.
Also, several of the chiefs said businesses aren't as likely as they once were to let employees leave whenever their volunteer duty calls, which kind of makes sense to Myers.
Several decades ago, most people lived and worked in the same little town they’d grown up in, he noted. That isn’t the case anymore, for both employees and their bosses.
And that can cause some problems for volunteer departments.
“If they all work daily, I have no fire department during the day,” Myers said.
That issue came to a head recently in Jacobus.
Former Goodwill Fire Co. Chief Jim Ostinowsky said his department would regularly “scratch” calls during the day, missing them because the department simply didn’t have any volunteers showing up. Better-staffed, larger departments from surrounding municipalities would end up taking those calls.
Frustrated with this, the borough cut its annual monetary contribution to the fire department, saying it needed a concrete plan to make things better before municipal officials could justify spending more.
The department in a news release denied scratching calls was a regular occurrence.
A few chiefs said part of the recruiting problem for volunteer departments seems to be cultural, with this generation just not wanting to be firefighters as much as their parents and grandparents did.
Wellsville Fire Chief Larry Anderson said young people simply aren't willing to do work this hard for free.
"The young ones are not interested in it," he said. "Too labor intensive."
York City Fire Chief Dave Michaels said he thinks part of it is that people just don’t have the same kind of connection to their communities as they used to.
“I don’t think we really see community pride as we once did,” he said.
He also said many prospective firefighters get turned off by the amount of training hours required before they can actually start fighting fires. These days, about 168 hours of training are required.
That is a bit different then it was a few decades ago.
“You just went in, joined up and that night you could jump on the back of a firetruck,” said Michaels, a 25-year veteran of the department.
The lack of volunteer firefighters hurts York City perhaps the least of the county's departments. The city has an around-the-clock, paid staff, so — while it’s better for them to have volunteers augmenting the department than not — it’s not a very pressing issue.
York City is one of the only departments in the county that has a full staff of paid firefighters. A few other departments, such as Fairview Township and West York, have some paid drivers, but that’s it.
Several chiefs said that may have to change if the volunteer numbers continue to shrink to the point of rendering unpaid departments useless. And municipal budgets would be hit hard in a world without volunteer firefighters, Michaels said.
"The amount that they save the taxpayers is incredible," he said.
Coming Thursday: Local lawmakers spearhead efforts to bolster volunteer fire departments, and a local department has found an innovative way to attract volunteers: Let them live rent-free in the fire house.
— Reach Sean Cotter at email@example.com.